The bowl was in the dishwasher at work and I recognized it instantly. That rim of earthy green flowers decorating the edge of a crisp white Pyrex bowl. My grandmother had a set of the very same dishes in her house in Karachi and they would sometimes make an appearance at chai time. Was it a sign from god? Maybe. Maybe not. But it was something. See, my grandmother passed away last week. Mumma lived a long, full, and happy life. She traveled the world and had a large circle of beautiful and warm friends. She lived to see her children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren build beautiful families and lives of their own. Hands down, Mumma was easily the most gracious and loved person I knew.
And yet, when my mother called to tell me of her passing, I had a very removed reaction. It had been many years since I'd seen Mumma. Over the last few years, her hearing started fading and phone calls became too taxing because I would essentially have a conversation with her nurse who would yell my statements to my grandmother and then relay my grandmother's response back. Sometimes, the nurse forgot that she didn't need to yell the response back to me so the entire phone call became a very loud, almost ironic game of Telephone. Thereafter, her memory became foggy and she could never quite remember which grandchild I was. Eventually, the nurse was forced to admit my grandmother had no idea who I was and why I was calling. And so, I stopped calling.
And yet, seeing that bowl in the dishwasher jolted me. It forced me to remember my grandmother as she once was, all stately and elegant, with the most graceful presence I have ever encountered. I grinned thinking of how she commanded order in our loud, boisterous, and ever argumentative family. I thought of the gold bracelet from her trousseau that she passed to me when I got married because as she said, "Every woman needs beautiful jewelry." And I smiled at my pear-shaped reflection in the mirror because although the figure was both a blessing and a curse (but mostly a curse), she was ever the egalitarian and passed her figure down to all the women in my family. And for that afternoon (and many to follow), I was the crazy person crying behind her closed office door. Crying and remembering.
You see, my Mumma was the epitome of style. And I'm not talking about the blue haired, flowered housecoat variety of style. No, she had more of a Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey style, what with her deep love of fine jewelry and designer shoes. Oh, and her perfume. Mumma's entire house smelled like her favorite perfume, Nina Ricci's L'Air du Temps. At a time when foreign perfumes were quite rare in Pakistan, Mumma had no qualms telling a friend or family member traveling abroad to bring back her precious Nina Ricci. Two bottles. When I was a kid, I would quickly get ready and rush to her vanity so she could squirt my wrists with her perfume every time we went out. To this day, that heady floral scent transports me back to those humid Pakistani summers. And gosh did she love fancy handbags. The woman was nonchalantly carrying Louis Vuitton long before the company stooped to making dog carriers and knockoffs became commonplace.
Best of all, my grandmother loved food. Everything from the humble bun kebab grilled by the streetside vendor to the fancy Chicken Kiev served on sparkling china at the fanciest restaurant in Karachi. Most surprisingly, my grandmother loved cheese. Loved it. And that's rare for an older Pakistani woman who really hasn't been exposed to cheese. Heck, to this day, the majority of my family in Pakistan thinks the best cheese is on Pizza Hut pizza. But oh how my Mumma loved cheese. Spicy pepper jack, creamy mozzarella, crackly parmesan and my personal favorite, sharp cheddar. And I wouldn't be doing Mumma's legacy justice if I didn't admit that amidst the many great cheeses we devoured with crackers, she and I indulged in more than our fair share of blue box Kraft mac n' cheese. And so, to honor her memory, I made a giant pot of mac n' cheese last weekend. I ate it quietly, staring out in the backyard and remembering her twinkling eyes, her laugh which erupted without warning, and her hugs which she doled out to friends and foes alike. And though there wasn't a blue box in sight, I think Mumma would have approved of this mac n' cheese.
When someone mentioned heaven, my grandmother always cackled, "If only someone went up and came back to tell us if it was worth it." I know you won't come back Mumma, but I know for certain you're up there, eating cheese and having a grand ol' time.
3 1/2 tbs. butter
1 tb. olive oil
4 tbs. flour
1 garlic clove, minced
2 1/2 cups whole milk
1/2 pound macaroni
2 cups shredded sharp white cheddar cheese
1/2 cup coarse breadcrumbs or Panko
Salt and Pepper
Boil water and cook pasta in heavily salted water until pasta is al dente.
While pasta is boiling, in a separate pot, melt 3 tablespoons. butter and 1 tablespoon oil oil. Gradually add in flour, whisking constantly, and cook until flour becomes golden brown and smells nutty. Add the milk, continuing to whisk constantly. The butter-flour-milk mixture should have the consistency of thick cream. If it's too thin, continue cooking until it thickens. Once the mixture has thickened, add the cheese and stir until melted. Season with salt and pepper. Drain pasta and add to the cheese mixture and mix completely.
In a separate pan, melt 1/2 tablespoon butter. Add garlic and cook until fragrant (don't walk away to answer the phone, check Twitter, or see what the Real Housewives are up to because the garlic will burn). Add the breadcrumbs to the delicious garlic butter and mix completely. Cook on low heat until breadcrumbs are toasted and fragrant.
Plate mac n' cheese. Top with toasted garlic breadcrumbs and chopped fresh herbs.