As an only child, and as the baby in my entire extended family for a good chunk of a decade, I was surrounded by a lot of adults. Therefore I quickly learned how to eat like one.
The children’s menu at most restaurants usually say they’re for “kids 11 and under,” but I was ordering from the “adult menu” well before I turned twelve. I like to think that I was a prodigy when it came to dining out, that I accelerated through my food education so that I could order with the rest of the grown-ups. While other kids my age were munching on chicken fingers and fries (How juvenile!), I was enjoying seafood platters and pasta dishes named after famous Italians I couldn’t properly pronounce.
This was no more apparent than when I was with my grandmother. While being raised by two working parents in the gloriously gluttonous 1980s, a memorable amount of my New York childhood was spent with the only grandparent I knew. This involved numerous day trips and numerous tasty meals throughout much of the Tri-state area.
My grandma, Grace Riehm (nee Gibbs), was born on December 21, 1921 into an Irish Catholic family with twelve children on the outskirts of New York City. (Those East Coast immigrants sure knew how to populate the country.) She married a handsome German boy named George Riehm, and at the age of twenty-two, she gave birth to the first of seven children who would collectively give her twelve grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren throughout her lifetime. Holiday gatherings were never quiet.
Since I was the youngest (and only) kid in the family during the entire duration of the Reagan administration, I was fortunate enough receive most of Grandma’s loving attention. I spent many afterschool sessions constructing highways and shopping center parking lots with my Hot Wheels and Matchbox miniatures on the pea-soup-green carpet of her apartment while glancing up at the TV set every now and then to see what dramas were unfolding on General Hospital. Perhaps this is what had instilled in me a deep appreciation for a good, soapy plot twist.
Before my parents arrived to pick me up and take me home, she would cook me dinners that appeared to follow a consistent weekday schedule. Macaroni and cheese – the boxed kind, with that toxic-orange-colored powder – was often served on Mondays. Grandma’s personal touch: adding a can of peas to the mix. Gotta get my serving of vegetables somehow. Fried pork chops with sauerkraut and apple sauce were usually reserved for Wednesdays. Other days featured a rotation of cheeseburgers smothered in tomato sauce with instant mashed potatoes, fried filet of flounder (her specialty) with more mashed potatoes, and spaghetti with Ragu. (I never had a home-cooked Italian meal that didn’t involve sauce from a jar.) I should also mention that there was never a slice of bread or a biscuit that wasn’t slathered in butter in that first floor apartment on Centre Avenue.
I’m salivating just writing that last paragraph.
Dining out with Grandma was always a little adventure in itself. Shopping mall food courts were a given, but they were also child’s play. For instance, the White Plains Galleria offered plenty of options, but it was a restaurant inside the mall called Mr. Greenjeans that provided some memorable meals. Known for their oversized drinking glasses and very 80s décor (random road signs, blinking traffic lights, neon grid lighting), Mr. Greenjeans was where I experienced my first Caesar salad. The garlicky creaminess of the dressing made quite an impression on me, and I felt like I could eat salads for the rest of my life – so healthy, right? I got a slight thrill seeing our server’s reaction when he took my order.
“And what can I get for the young gentleman?” he asked.
“I’ll have the Caesar salad with grilled shrimp and extra dressing on the side,” I told him with the confidence of a high-powered businessman who just landed a promotion after snorting cocaine (again, the 80s).
I clearly caught the guy off guard, bypassing the kids menu for an item usually reserved for Westchester housewives taking a break from the sale racks at JCPenney.
“Oh, okay,” he replied, scribbling it down on his pad.
I could imagine him silently judging my order: This kid doesn’t know what he’s getting into. What eight-year-old orders a shrimp Caesar salad?
He glanced at Grandma for a second as if he expected her to clarify the order and tell him what I really wanted, as if this were some kind of restaurant game of pretend in which little boys order like grown-ups. Little did this guy know what my appetite was capable of.
“I’ll have the chicken club,” Grandma told him, “with a cup of the vegetable soup. And an iced tea.”
“Will that be all?” our server asked, holding out for the possibility that I might change my mind.
“I’ll have a Diet Coke with a side of lemon,” I told him. “Please.” And drop the condescending tone, I thought.
Such exchanges were common in other restaurants Grandma and I visited. If I ordered something that appeared to be on the children’s menu, I always had to clarify that I wanted the “regular, adult version.” There was no way I was going to subject myself to the pitiful portions that came with the kids’ meals at some of these places.
The Ground Round was known for serving a basket of popcorn at each table while you waited for your meal. We’d usually go through two baskets before our orders were served. Every so often Grandma would like to splurge and order a steak with a loaded baked potato. Sometimes she treated butter like the Elixir of Life and went through several little packets to accentuate her meal. Naturally I did the same and joined her in this buttery binge before my cheeseburger arrived.
The Ground Round on Central Avenue in Yonkers was also where I had a surprise party for my sixth birthday. My mother had invited my entire kindergarten class to celebrate. Chicken fingers were consumed. A girl vomited into a basket of popcorn. A clown was hired to make balloon animals. And I made out like a bandit, bringing home a shitload of gifts that made Christmas seem like a pitiful, distant memory.
Friendly’s was another regional chain of family-friendly restaurants that was a frequent stop during my many outings with Grandma. Whether it was lunch or dinner, dessert was always a must. The signature strawberry sundae was one of my childhood vices. Three scoops of creamy ice cream, topped with thick strawberry sauce, whipped cream, chopped nuts, and of course, a Maraschino cherry. As I got older I dared to try to “super-sized” sundae every so often (five scoops of deliciousness with double the toppings). There were never any leftovers. In fact, 99% of the restaurants I visited as a child never involved the taking home of food I couldn’t finish. I always left with a clean plate, something I probably inherited from my Japanese father, a man who never met a meal he didn’t inhale in one complete swoop.
One of Grandma’s neighbors, a kind and bespectacled woman I called Ms. Parker, sometimes dropped by and joined us for one of our trips to the mall or a nice seafood meal out on City Island in the Bronx. She lived on the sixth floor of Grandma’s apartment building and always waved to me from her bedroom window during my morning walks to school. She owned a cream-colored 1970 Chevy Nova that she hardly used. It sat in the same spot outside the building in the large parking lot that was used by most of the businesses of downtown New Rochelle. When I turned 16, there was a brief mention about me inheriting the car. That never happened. It was probably for the best; there was no cassette tape deck I could use to blare my many Spice Girls and Alanis Morissette mixtapes on the way to school.
“My word! He eats like a grown-up!” Ms. Parker exclaimed upon seeing me do everything but lick the Alfredo sauce off my dish to make sure nothing was left. This was probably her polite way of saying, “Jesus, Grace! You sure feed this boy well! No wonder he’s so plump!”
I just sat there as Ms. Parker patted my head and smiled at me. I wasn’t sure if I was being congratulated for a job well done, being praised for such a grown-up accomplishment, or being condescendingly criticized for my eating habits. Either way, I could feel myself blush. I didn’t know how to react. I could have responded, “Thanks, Esther. You should see what happens when you put me in front of a chocolate chip ice cream sandwich!” Or maybe, “Mind your business, Esther. Just finish your damn clam chowder and be grateful that Grandma is paying for both of us.”
Ms. Parker was so impressed by my enormous appetite and ability to consume an amount of food that would make Jabba The Hut gag that Grandma thought it was funny to share Ms. Parker’s reaction with the rest of the family. The consensus was that I had a “healthy appetite, and thank God I wasn’t a picky eater like some of those spoiled brats you see in restaurants.”
However, my last memory of her involves swinging by that same first-floor apartment – that pea-soup-green carpet had been replaced in the late 90s with a plush coral that would only fade and brown from foot traffic – on my way to the airport to catch my flight back to L.A., just three days after the holiday. I hugged her as she sat on the edge of her bed, half-eaten toast left on a small tray, the volume of her TV turned up and tuned in to a Christmas episode of Hot in Cleveland. It was just like any other goodbye. A delicate embrace, a kiss, and an obligatory “take care of yourself.”
But it was the final one, and I’m very grateful that I was given that chance to experience it.
I’m also very hopeful that she is enjoying that grand, all-you-can-eat buffet in the sky. Buttered rolls and all.