Finding Solace in Recreating My Grandma’s ‘Wurst’ Recipes

Photo: Getty Images / Dougal Waters
Bean water. That’s what we all called my grandmother’s “pasta fazuul”: bean water. The memory still sends my cousins, sister, and I cackling in a group text. We all abhorred it growing up, dreading the nights it was made for dinner, and choking it down as best we could when it arrived. Yet a few weeks ago I found myself craving it—pasta e fagioli being its proper name—and decided to make it for dinner, eager for the soothing nostalgia I knew eating it would bring.

My grandmother was not the Excellent Grandma Cook that most people love to say they had. She excelled at pasta dishes where cheese and sauce were king, but overall she was generally a passable cook at best. Her favorite foods were a mishmash of things of a certain era—think spam and eggs, liverwurst sandwiches, and cube steaks and onions—all considered incredibly bizarre and largely inedible by myself and my far-pickier younger siblings.

It wasn’t all “bad food” that she liked, of course. One of her favorite dishes to make was latkes. It’s just that...she made them terribly. The perfect vessels—when done right—for crunchy, salty, chewy euphoria topped with sour cream or applesauce, latkes were a regular dinnertime item in our household. Only by her hand, they were oil-laden and soggy and made the stomach churn. My grandmother’s food occasionally did this to us all—for better or for worse, her love of butter and oils was a constant in her cooking.

While my grandmother was the first to admit that she wasn’t the best of cooks, that didn’t keep her from doing it. She had to: she was raising three grandkids after raising four kids of her own and often had to take charge of cooking for our frequent and very large family parties and gatherings. As I grew older, I was tasked with helping her, something I came to love to do. But it wasn’t because what she was serving us was always delicious. It was because I loved being near her and learning what she knew.

Despite all this, I have not been able to stop craving her mediocre cooking and all her favorite foods during the last few months of this year, a year filled with so much turmoil and when I’ve missed her the most.

The cravings started around Thanksgiving. I felt compelled to make her version of stuffing, filled with her signature too-buttery onions and stuffed with sage and sausage. Every bite filled me with simultaneous nostalgia and indigestion. I gasped on the floor after the meal, deliciously defeated by the overindulgence.

I want to eat every single thing she loved so that I might feel like I am with her, ingesting her knowledge and know-how and tough love.

The timing is not coincidental. The last time I saw my grandmother alive was the week after Thanksgiving 2018. I’d spent the previous month with my family after a mental health crisis and a suicide attempt, and it was time to head back and face the reality of my life in Los Angeles. Spending those weeks with her was precious, and not just for my own healing. My grandmother had not been well for a long time, and she’d lost a ton of weight from not eating. I made her dinner most nights of the week, whatever she wanted, all of her favorites. It was important to me that she felt supported and satisfied, even if she barely had an appetite.

I left on a Wednesday; by Friday she was in the hospital. We both knew, hugging each other that time, that it would be the last time either of us saw the other alive. She died on January 26th, 2019. I have missed her terribly every day since, filling my life with the things she loved most—Barbra Streisand and Rosemary Clooney, reading and gardening, keeping up on celebrity gossip, snacking on York Peppermint Patties.

Ever since she passed away, I’ve consistently craved all of my grandmother’s favorites—which is how I found myself desperate for that damn bean water just a few weeks ago. I was stressed about my nonexistent workload (bad news if you’re a freelancer) and was all up in my feelings on a personal matter, and all I wanted was a hug and a chat with my grandmother. I knew it was time to make the pasta e fagioli. I loaded the pasta dish up with fresh herbs and extra garlic, a twist, and an homage, and imagined she would have liked it. It was so much better than I remembered. I hoped she would be honored and a little bit bemused.

We’re just over a month away from the two-year anniversary of her passing, and now I’m craving a liverwurst sandwich, extra mayo, on white Wonder bread. I want a Dunkin' coffee, sickeningly light and sweet. I want to find a kaiser roll and dunk it in my coffee like she did while reading the Sunday paper, each side of the roll completely slathered with salted butter. I want to eat every single thing she loved so that I might feel like I am with her, ingesting her knowledge and know-how and tough love, hugging her goodbye again that one last time.

Maybe the food my grandmother made wasn’t perfect, but it filled our bellies and was integral to our home. She worked so hard to make sure we had a sense of stability and normalcy throughout our tumultuous childhood. My soul craves being with her, to honor her and her own cravings; it longs to fulfill the desires she once had, both in food and in life. By recreating her favorite dishes—and reliving the many happy memories that go with them—she continues to nourish me long after her passing.

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