The smell of liver sausage at my grandparents’ house on West Dale Avenue meant that summer was over and fall was officially here. When I entered the front door, the smell would attach to every hair, fiber, and skin cell, and it would leap onto any unsuspecting passers-by after I left. Grandpa Rich made his famous sausage just once a year with great anticipation from his six kids, neighbors, and distant relatives. The large batch always included enough for me, “Keefers,” just in case it was the year I would finally be brave enough to sample it.
At home it was macaroni and cheese. Or was it macaroni and butter? I suppose it depended on the day of the week. Back then, when money was tight, Mom and I would survive on mac and cheese served in our house-party Tupperware. When we became sick of that, we’d replace the cheese with some delicious government issued “butter.” Butter (a.k.a. generic margarine) was not in fact better, just a change. Without these two delicacies, I highly doubt I would have survived my childhood. And yes, I hear you Ronald McDonald. You too did your part.
I could always find Grandpa in one of four places: on a roof, a golf course, playing cribbage, or in the kitchen. Though I love heights, golf, and cribbage, it was our time together in the kitchen that I loved the most.
Friday nights, for my Catholic grandparents, meant perch dinners. My introduction to seafood was Lake Michigan perch from Doo Drop Inn. It wasn’t my favorite, but really, what’s not to like about battered and fried white fish snuggled up to golden french fries? Even my finnicky five-year old daughter loves the crispy fish and fries.
Perch dinners were just the warmup to my foodie weekends with Grandpa. On Saturdays he grilled burgers that were always delicious, and out of this world if Notre Dame was up at half- time. Or he brushed chicken skin crisped on the grill with a sweet barbeque sauce. Or, when the weather was extra cold, he would stand at the stove to make paper-thin crepes, filled with jam. I swear he could somehow make those crepes with no hands. Maybe he needed hands to make his fried bologna sandwich, or maybe not, but it was always magnificent nonetheless, and truly one of my favorites.
On Sunday mornings, after spending the night to escape Mom’s curfew, the aromas of Grandpa’s slow-cooked meat wafted upstairs and slowly roused me from teenage slumber. These aromas were powerful enough to pull me out of bed and down to the kitchen (with a little assistance from gravity) despite a paralyzing hangover. Other mornings I would rush out of bed towards the back door for a golf tournament, only to stop in my tracks at the sight and smell of Grandpa waiting at the kitchen table with fresh crepes or just-baked raisin toast. For me, back then, food at best was only fuel, but it was so much more for Grandpa.
During an otherwise turbulent childhood, I always felt safe watching Grandpa effortlessly move around the kitchen to cook his specialties passed down from French Canadian ancestors. He could magically produce fabulous meals while playing cribbage, telling stories, or following two baseball games (one with his eyes, the other with his ears). But it was the liver sausage that changed my life. As a child, I was always intrigued as I watched and smelled Grandpa make this dish every year, but never brave enough to sample it. Even the rest of the family’s giddy excitement was not enough to convince me to taste just a tiny bite. Instead, aware of the season and my limited time outside without a heavy jacket, I’d run out to play, donning my umami-inspired cologne, with all the neighbors also trying to enjoy the last days before winter. Until one day, I don’t know if it was puberty, I was starving, or maybe it was just so cold that I lost my senses, I finally broke and asked Grandpa to slice a piece of the pungent liver sausage. He excitedly placed it between two soft yet crunchy pieces of mustard-bathed bread and handed me the plate. I took a bite. And that was it for me.
Grandpa’s liver sausage led me to my wife. We met while working together at a restaurant, admittedly a job I took not because I loved food, but because I needed to pay the rent. But Grandpa’s sausage opened me up to the exploration of food and restaurants, the perfect pastime for two kids falling in love in San Francisco. We’d wake up bleary-eyed after night shifts followed by closing-time cocktails, and choose our late morning breakfast spot. At breakfast, we’d talk about where we were going to eat lunch. At lunch, we’d figure out what industry friends we needed to call to get coveted dinner seats at trendy new restaurants on our nights off. Irresponsibly blowing through all our tip money, it was easy between the two of us, in part because I was obsessed with food, and so was she.
Eventually we had a daughter. She is five years old now. We can no longer afford to blow through our paychecks on restaurant meals. And my daughter refuses to try even the tiniest bites of food I know to be delicious. I am comforted that she is often in the kitchen with her mom and me, watching and smelling our culinary creations. I know she’ll break one day just like I did.
Although my trips to the golf course are much less frequent, and I rarely have time to seek double runs or the cut I need to dominate the cribbage board (though I’m never short on time to count my knobs), Grandpa’s gift of food is still ever-present in my life.
The other night, while helping my daughter roll her own pizza dough, I could almost feel Grandpa’s hands guiding us. Grandpa, the next liver sausage sandwich is for you. Thank you.