“Grandpa’s Fries” first appeared in Prism 51:2.
My grandma was Italian, extremely petite, and superb in the kitchen. She taught me how to make fluffy, air-filled tapioca by whipping egg whites into meringue before stirring them into hot milk. She liked to eat oranges with thin slices of Vidalia onions, garbanzos, and a slim drizzle of extra virgin olive oil on top. Grandma always served herself on side plates, or in small glass ramekins, to make sure she ate tiny portions.
My grandpa, however, was Polish, morbidly obese, and liked to show off by eating strips of raw bacon. He’d dangle the bacon over his mouth, wiggle it, and then lap it up with a grin while my cousins and I squealed in horror. He ate three meals a day in his brown La-Z-Boy while he watched television, and he kept a generous stash of hard candies in the side table drawer beside him. Our game: to pester Grandpa slowly and deliberately until he yelled at us or gave us candy. He usually gave us candy at first, which meant we would come back to push our luck a second time. Then he’d yell. This terrified us in the best way.
My cousins and I were at our grandparents’ house in Evansville, Indiana on the day of the tornado warning. This was the first time I’d experienced one, but my cousins lived through tornadoes every year; they weren’t afraid this time, and I followed their lead. My three cousins lived in Evansville, so they often stayed with our grandparents during the day. I was visiting from Sudbury, and this was the first time my parents left me there on my own. In their absence, my grandparents’ house felt different, more tangible. It was as though a pane of glass had been removed from a diorama, and now, on my own, I was free to see and touch and live in the real house.
As soon as the rain started, Grandma called us down to the basement, the safest place to be during a thunderstorm in tornado season. Grandpa ignored her, so we did too. He heated a pot of oil and stood at the kitchen counter and sliced a whole bag of russet potatoes. He chopped each potato in half lengthwise first, then chopped it again three or four times to make long wedges. The sky grew darker and darker as he worked. Grandpa kept the peels on; that’s where the vitamins were, he said. Then he plunged them into the oil. The rain was coming down sideways and thunder shook the kitchen walls. Grandpa’s colossal body filled the room like the weather; his billowing grey sweatpants and T-shirt loomed above us. Grandma stayed downstairs for all of this, in part because of the storm, in part because she didn’t like to watch Grandpa use the deep-fryer in her kitchen. The storm only enhanced his performance.
When each batch was ready, he scooped them out of the oil with a slotted spoon and dumped them out on a cookie sheet lined with paper towels. They were steaming hot, crispy and golden. The light coming out from under the stove hood was the only light in the dark kitchen, and it cast a glow that made the fries look dramatically bright. Grandpa let me and my cousins salt the potatoes after each batch was done. We took turns with the shaker. Then he’d put another few handfuls of wedges into the hot oil, and we’d wait for the next batch. We were way too afraid of Grandpa to sneak any into our mouths.
The storm closed in as Grandpa cooked. He didn’t rush it, though. It must have taken him about half an hour. The last batch was done just before the power went out. There was still enough light to see—it was only mid-afternoon—but the clouds had turned the yellow-green of a bad bruise. Grandma still waited for us downstairs. We brought the fries to the basement on a big white plate. Grandma had put out paper napkins for us, even though she wouldn’t be eating any of it. She’d turned on the little red radio and was listening to the news.
The storm took some trees down in the neighbourhood. One came down across the street. Men with chainsaws would have to come chop it up and clear the road the next morning. My aunt and uncle would have to replace their garage because of the damage; fallen branches from the tree next door had crushed the roof. No one was hurt. We were lucky.
In the years before and since, Evansville has seen more than one powerful tornado rip through the city: entire subdivisions have been destroyed. On this day, the storm must have been more dangerous than Grandma and Grandpa let on. But learning about the danger came years later; I don’t even remember hearing the news that day, even though I know Grandma was listening to it. What I do remember: the wind and rain whipping at the small basement windows, the vibration from heavy thunder, like something was being thrown at us from above, and the potent feeling of polished independence that came from spending the day with my grandparents. I would call it sophistication, if I were to describe that feeling today. But I was a child—only seven years old—and besides, it feels more honest to name it with the food itself, the flavour of which is so vivid I can taste it now: Grandpa’s fries, still hot from the oil, almost sweet, crunchy with too much salt.