My grandmother planted snap dragons by the breezeway door. She hated salad and never missed her nightly cocktail. And since we are coming up on the end of May, it reminds me that she insisted on celebrating the summer holidays with a cook out at her house on Memorial Day, 4th of July and Labor Day.
My mother, being a dutiful daughter, agreed to bring the three of us kids while my father was out shell fishing for extra money, his night time summer job after a long day working for the local electric company. I'm sure he preferred the quiet of the bay over the raucous opinionated arguments that inevitably surfaced around Grammy's kitchen table at these events.
"Come over around 5:00 pm for cocktails and hors d'oeuvres." Grammy said in her sing song voice. (She never referred to pre-dinner snacks as, "appetizers". It would have been gauche.) My mother knew what that meant. Never one to have a drink herself as she hated the taste of alcohol, she braced herself for a potentially long evening, the kind that drags on forever if you are the only one in the group not partaking. She would need to take control of the reigns upon arrival.
The cocktails consisted of your choice of vodka or whiskey purchased in gallon jugs and an array of mixers from cranberry juice to various flavored, sometimes flat, plastic liter bottles of soda. Grammy and her husband, "Pressy", short for his middle name, Prescott, favored at the time vodka mixed with Fresca, that bracing grapefruit flavored soft drink, on the rocks, light on the Fresca.
The bar was well stocked. Er, crammed with sticky bottles jammed into the corner counter space behind the kitchen T.V. I could barely pour myself a soda or a cranberry juice, which the kids were allowed to do since we were at Grammy's house. I did need help reaching the glasses from the cabinet above, so I had to employ my sister with her long, lanky arms or a close by adult to reach one for me. My favorite were a set of roughly worn plastic cocktail cups with a golf game sealed into the bottom. Once you finished your drink, you could try to swirl the little white ball around to land it into the hole on the painted green, marked with a bright yellow flag. This game occupied me for some time as any little nudge could knock the ball off its perch and I would have to start all over again.
Although I was excited to score one of those plastic cups as mine for the evening, by far the most interesting and exotic item to me was the pint glass full of swizzle sticks collected from various swanky bars and restaurants in Falmouth and Woods Hole. The solid red one with the lobster at the top and the large, loopy capital "L" from the "Landfall waterfront dining". Navy blue with a regal crest at the top for Woods Hole Golf Club (the most exclusive golf club in town), bright yellow and hunter green ones, too but I don't recall what they were advertising.
Hors d'oeuvres were typically cheese and crackers. WisPride Spreadable Cheese, the bright orange and shockingly pink, port wine flavor was fancy. If the gathering was impromptu, a can of Kraft Cheez Whiz graced the table, instead. Either delicacy was served with Triscuit Crackers that inevitably grew stale in the damp, Cape Cod air.
Without the hors d'oeuvres, these evenings could have gone terribly wrong as dinner seemed to take forever to get going. By the time we arrived at the appointed time, no one had thought to prepare the charcoal for grilling. Val poured the briquettes into the rickety grill, located the lighter fluid and admonished us to stand back as she lit a match and tossed it on top hoping it would ignite but at the same time, terrified it might explode from the accelerator and singe off her eyebrows. After the excitement was over, I ran off to play and argue with my siblings and wait for what seemed like an eternity before being called for dinner. It would be a while before the briquettes turned into smoking gray embers and hot enough to barely cook any traditional cook out meat.
The dinner buffet was spread out on the kitchen table covered in a green and yellow floral, plastic table cloth to protect the wood underneath. Hamburgers and hot dogs for the kids, steaks for the adults (Grammy made a big deal out of this and the kids knew not to ask for any.) Canned baked beans, Wise Potato Chips and possibly a salad brought by Val which was the only green vegetable in the offering. For dessert, brownies from a box mix baked off earlier that day by Grammy, herself. Although she didn't like to spend time in the kitchen, she also didn't shy away from new cooking inventions intended to make life easier. Val insisted on making sweets from scratch for us at home but I loved Betty Crocker's chewy, fudgy version best. The ice cream scooped on top may have had a layer of crystals growing on it from a long time spent buried in the freezer but kids don't care about that and we slowly ate it all up, dragging out our meal as we sat out on the deck while the bug zapper decimated mosquitoes. By now, it was well past our usual bedtime and we knew we would have to go home after we finished.
A gathering at Grammy's house always seemed to be an event. I ran in and out of the house, as the sun went down, mosquitoes in the damp air and the screen door slamming behind me, as the adults' loud conversation mingled with the sound of the Red Sox on the kitchen T.V. Ice clinked, tumbling into glasses and someone used a swizzle stick to stir a cocktail. Out on the deck, I watched my mother's silhouette lit by the kitchen light as she flipped burgers and steaks for dinner. Grammy hugging us from her perch at the kitchen table as she spread processed cheese on stale crackers then popped one into her mouth. While these are not exactly the images my own children see when they gather at their grandmother's house on such occasions, my hope is that they will have just as fond memories when they look back in years to come.
Vodka and Fresca
(makes one cocktail)
1 oz. Schmirnoff Vodka
3 oz. Fresca
Fill a rocks glass with ice. Add vodka. Top off with Fresca. Stir gently with a swizzle stick, never a knife, "You will stir strife!" according to Grammy. No need for fancy garnishes. Enjoy and have another, if you like.