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Personal Foodstory: The comforts of Grandpa’s house include poetry, time and Scottish lamb stew

On the wall next to the stove, there was a large framed original “Peanuts” comic strip, signed by Charles Schulz, whose sailboat was docked next to my Grandpa’s in Sausalito.

The first panel showed Snoopy on his doghouse watching a laboring butterfly approaching. In the second panel, the exhausted insect had landed next to Snoopy, recovering its breath. By the third panel, the butterfly had flitted off again, continuing its journey. The last panel showed Snoopy looking at the reader, thinking, “My home is a haven for all sorts of weary travelers.”

That haven was located on West Poplar Avenue in San Mateo, California, where my grandparents, Don and Evelyn Grant, lived. Weary travelers found all sorts of comforts there:

The comfort of hugs upon arrival. Grandpa’s right hand always rubbing warm circles into my back.

The comfort of time. Enough time for everything. If I’d been away too long, I might’ve forgotten, until I asked Grandpa a question, and then he’d stop and ponder, his eyes suddenly elsewhere, lips compressed in thought, his lower lip rolling his upper lip back and forth, back and forth, formulating the best answer. He was a lawyer and humanitarian (at the time, the two were not considered mutually exclusive) as well as a poet, sailor and astronomer. He was capable of a lot of very good answers, and they were always worth the wait.

The comfort of poetry and words. Soon after I arrived, Grandpa and I would meet in the den, a full wall of books next to us, so he could read me a new poem. His eyebrows danced throughout the reading, and nothing else existed in the world other than the poem and us. At some point before I had to return home, he’d tuck a book into my hand, saying, “You’ll like this.”

The comfort of support. I’m a professional musician, so my job is carried out in front of live audiences, sometimes very large ones. When I was just starting out, self-doubt was my occasional companion. One time, just before an especially difficult performance, I received a greeting card from Grandpa Grant. On its outside was a drawing of a tiny young violinist on stage looking out at a massive audience. The image was overwhelming. Inside was the caption: “Believe in yourself.” To that, Grandpa had added: “We believe in you.”

The comfort of smells. The eucalyptus trees in the backyard, Mrs. Clute’s rose garden next door, the just-opened can of cat food for Lincoln in the back pantry, the gentle spice of Grandpa’s Aramis cologne, the seductive smell of comfort food pervading the house.

In my memory, he’s wearing his heavy red flannel shirt, the one that matches his tam, as I watch him prepare that most Scottish of comfort foods, lamb stew. We converse as he occasionally visits the pot on the enormous white gas-fueled stove sitting high on its haunches.

The fuel for the cook is, of course, Scotch (Grant’s, Glenlivet or Glenfiddich), though on other occasions, it’s tiny cans of Coors, like what they use for V8 juice. He drinks it heartily, yet elegantly, upending the can with long, slender fingers. Believe it or not, prior to the onset of the craft beer movement of the 1980s, Coors was practically a religion. My family has been especially zealous in this regard. Religious fervor that has nothing to do with religion seems to run in certain sects of our clan (I myself have been a devout Christian Bourbonist for some time now).

Back in the kitchen, Grandpa Grant’s soft, gravelly voice is punctuated by the clear falsetto of his laughter, both present in abundance. And as with questions and answers, the stew takes as long as it takes. It will be worth the wait. In fact, lamb stew might’ve given me my first inkling that it’s about the journey, not the destination. Its preparation allows ample time for conversation, pondering, writing, reading and liquid refueling. It is full of vegetables (potatoes, carrots, onions) that display the good sense and pragmatism to protect themselves from the raw elements by growing underground.

So every year, spring or fall or winter, when there’s a chill in the air, or if I just feel the need for the comforts of a safe haven, I’ll pull out Grandpa Grant’s recipe, written in black felt tip on graph paper, and contained in a letter informing me that Ginny and Roger (my mom and stepfather) were on their way to San Mateo to visit. The lamb stew, simmering as he wrote the letter, would be there to welcome them, alongside a chunk of crusty bread, a glass of cold Chenin blanc and a welcome home hug, his right hand rubbing warm circles into their backs.

Grandpa Grant’s Scottish Lamb Stew

From Chris Cook of Spokane

Grandpa Grant included the instructions for his Scottish lamb stew in a letter, which described the process as a two-day affair. It’s signed, “Be well dear ones. We are proud of you and love you all.”

3 blocks of lamb (about 1 pound)

1 large onion

Salt, to taste

Pepper, to taste

Rosemary, to taste

8 mushrooms

1 can consommé

4 small potatoes, cubed

4 small tomatoes, diced

4 carrots, sliced

4 celery stalks, chopped

1/4 small head of cabbage, chopped

1 green pepper, diced

1 red pepper, diced

1 yellow pepper, diced

Boil lamb, onion, salt, pepper and rosemary until bones fall out of the lamb, about 2 hours. Simmer mushrooms and consommé until it’s “about as thick as molasses.” Add mushroom mixture to lamb. Refrigerate until fat solidifies, then remove it along with the bones, gristle and most of the onion. Reheat the soup on medium, adding all of the vegetables and cooking for about an hour. Serve with a chunk of crusty bread and a cold dry Chenin blanc.

Note: If the stew turns out too bland, add the juice of 1 lemon. If it’s too thin, Grandpa Grant used 1/2 can of cheddar cheese soup to thicken it up. “Don’t use a full can,” he wrote. “Or, it will overwhelm the flavor of the stew itself.”


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