For those of you who don’t know, Bubbie is the Yiddish term for grandmother. And even more important, for those of you who don’t know, my Bubbie was arguably one of the greatest Bubbie’s ever on the planet. She was the embodiment of unconditional love. I actually can’t recall ever seeing her without a smile on her face. Her mission in life was simple – bear children, raise them, feed them, love them, and then repeat same with grandchildren. The more I study nutrition and eating psychology, the more I learn about the science of food and how it impacts our DNA and our metabolism, the more I come to respect the simple and timeless eating wisdom that my grandmother stood for. Once you ate her meals, you understood in your bones that food is really love. You knew in your heart that food cooked with love touches the body and soul in a way that can last forever.
I’d like to share with you a story about food and love and the timeless heart of a grandmother that changed me to the core, and helped inspire me on a mission to transform the way the world nourishes itself. I think it would make my grandmother very happy if you listened.
First, let’s talk about the menu. I wish this didn’t sound so cliché, but this amazing grandmother really knew how to make chicken soup. This was the real old world stuff. Real chickens who were running around on a real farm eating real food and cared for by real people. She spent hours preparing the chicken, the vegetables, talking, smiling, and being the center of the universe in a tiny apartment in Brooklyn New York. Even as a young child, I knew I was in the presence of someone special. Her smile could light up the world. Her generous nature was extended to all. She spoke Russian, Yiddish, English, Polish, and wore a hearing aid that made a funny buzzing noise and never really quite worked. I think hearing aids today are much more efficient.
And somehow, it always came back to the food.
We all gathered around her table because there was no better place to be. Feuding relatives came together and ate in peace. The hard-working men and tired housewives of my family would find refuge in her meals. Bubbie knew how to feed people without even trying.
She didn’t so much know her place in the world as she simply lived it and occupied it and breathed it every day. I think if I had three wishes for the world, it’s that every child born would have a Bubbie like the one I had. World peace would be assured. Everyone would be well fed. Good health would be forthcoming. And you would know that you were loved, and that the old ones are indeed the best ones.
The unfortunate thing about grandparents is that they’re closer to death’s door than the rest of us, and often what that means is ill health, or disease, has an easier time of finding a home in the body of our elders. At some point in her 70s, she degenerated fast. I don’t remember what they called it back then, but these days we call it dementia or perhaps Alzheimer’s. She started losing her memory, she couldn’t recognize people, and no one knew what to do. So my parents put her in a home for old people who needed care and attention round-the-clock. Everybody cried. Once inside, she deteriorated even more.
At some point, she went into a vegetative state. She couldn’t eat and was often put on a feeding tube. At other times, she could take spoonfuls of Jello or pudding. She had no control over her body, her head and neck would spasm and move in every random direction, her eyes could no longer focus and would just roll around in her head, and she could no longer speak. Sadly, she was in this state for about four years. Once a week we would visit her, and my mother would feed her, brush her hair, and cry. 12-year-old me would do my best to be a man for my mom and keep it together while she fell apart.
I wanted to feed my Bubbie the spoonfuls of Jell-O, but for some reason, my mother wouldn’t let me. I’m not sure why, but I’m sure she had a good reason. Jell-O seemed such a strange food to give to such a noble and nourishing woman. Perhaps Jell-O is the one food that bookends so many lives. We give it to the very young, and we give it to those who are exiting this world. The field of nutrition surely has its irony.
So my story goes like this:
One weekend, on a visit to this precious old woman – her name was Esther Weinstein – like the many visits we did before, my mother brushed her hair, fed her Jell-O, and cried. But this time – and I hadn’t noticed this before – my mother needed to find a restroom, but didn’t want to leave me alone with my grandmother. She’d never left me alone with her before. Perhaps my mom was trying to care for my sensitive soul. She was torn. Somehow, leaving me alone with the shell of my Bubbie, head rolling, eyes spinning, mouth drooling would be too much for me. But I assured her I’d be okay. So she left the room. And then something very interesting happened:
Alone with my grandmother, sitting by her bedside, I picked up the spoon, dipped it into the Jell-O, and was about to feed her for the first time, ever. And before I could, she turned to me, her eyes perfectly focused and clear, her neck positioned to face me squarely, and she started speaking in the most articulate and lucid way.
This is what she said:
“Please, don’t ever let this happen to you. I know who I am, I know what I’m thinking, I know what I want to say, but I just can’t say it. I can almost speak the words, but they never come out. You don’t know how terrible this is. Please don’t let this happen to you. Please don’t let this ever happen to you. Just take care of yourself. I want you to be safe”
With her eyes still locked onto mine, piercing through me with the wisdom of the ages, with pain and anguish and longing, she began speaking in Yiddish, the language of her childhood. I had no idea what she was saying, but I hung on every word.
At some point, my mother walked into the room. And at that exact moment, Bubbie returned to her dementia, to her faraway place, to the prison that was her frail body and the nervous system that would simply not cooperate to speak the words that her soul wanted to say. I still had the spoonful of Jell-O in my hand.
I never had the chance to feed her.
Of course, I promptly reported this experience to my mother who looked at me with some combination of shock, disbelief, and hope. She wanted to hear the story over and over again, so I told it. Bubbie hadn’t spoken a word in four years, she hadn’t focused her eyes in all that time, and we had forgotten so much of this beautiful matriarch that we once knew. She never spoke again. She died months later.
On one level, our nutritional journey is a very simple one: you’re born, you eat, you die. In between all of that is hopefully a life well lived. I think if my grandmother could feed the world, she would. Oftentimes, our greatest heroes aren’t those who fight the wars, or make the fortunes, or hit the home run. Our greatest heroes aren’t the famous people in the movies or the ones that sing the songs on the radio. Sometimes, our greatest heroes are the ones who nourished us. The ones who loved us without conditions. The ones who fed us with all of their hearts.
If only we could take just a little piece of that love, and put it into our kitchens, share it with our family and friends, plant it on our farms, sneak it into our factories, or put it into our nutrition books. The world would instantly be a better place. We’d be more healthy and joyful. And I know my Bubbie, wherever she is, would smile.
What are some of your most heart-nourishing meals or experiences?