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Grandmother's Gift

A West Beach cookbook is a paean to the baked bean sandwich—and, for one author, a priceless family heirloom.

My grandmother, the family dowager empress, was not a cook, so it's fitting that the few recipes I have from her appear in a cookbook not meant for cooking. She sent it to me as a gift for Christmas 1986—Under Cottage Roofs: A Cookbook, published by the members of the West Beach Club of Hyannis Port, Massachusetts. The book is 150 pages long, printed on copy-shop card stock and illustrated with amateurish line drawings of sailboats and seashells, and the recipes it contains are truly dreadful.

It is an object of no value, in other words, as a cookbook or as anything else. But if my house caught fire and I could run inside to pluck just one thing from the flames, I would seriously consider choosing this book.

Why do I love it so? My devotion to Under Cottage Roofs is eccentric, not least of all because I am someone who appreciates the value of a real cookbook. My shelves sag with volumes dog-eared and stained from hard use. But my copy of Under Cottage Roofs is as clean and well preserved as a jewel on velvet.

Baked Bean Sandwiches, the unhappily named Crabbies, a recipe for something called, simply, Fish—it's hard to imagine a less appetizing roster. Half the recipes in the book seem to call for Worcestershire sauce, Minute Rice or a double boiler. The chapter on cocktails is by far the most imaginative, and the headnotes provided by contributors read like warnings from the surgeon general. (For something called Woodchuck: "This can sit almost forever!" For A.O.K. Easiest Hors d'Oeuvre in the World: "Delicious, and no one knows what they are!"). The cookbook is lighthearted and lazy, and concludes with driving directions to the local Dunkin' Donuts. Even the names of the women whose recipes it contains—Randi, CiCi, Lee-lee, Pinky, et al.—have the diminutive, unserious quality of quickie snacks.

I have never cooked from the pages of Under Cottage Roofs, not even to resurrect my grandmother's Leftover Lamb with Currant Sauce (page 51) or Raspberry Dessert (page 128). As noted, my grandmother was not a cook: One day in the late 1970s, I dropped by her house, unannounced and hungry, and found nothing in the refrigerator but a package of American cheese and a six-pack of Miller High Life. Her contributions, especially the lamb, are best contemplated in the abstract. So it's not the cook in me, but the writer, that loves this book. For all its shortcomings as a how-to manual—or more likely, because of them—Under Cottage Roofs manages to capture, with a vividness more complete than any photo album can, the feeling of a moment and a kind of lost boyhood Eden.

Hyannis Port, summer home to the Kennedys and Shrivers, playground of America's great Irish aristocracy—how did I find myself in such a place? As a child I lived two lives, according to the seasons. In the winter I was a thoroughly middle-class boy in the suburbs of New York City, but come summer I lived like a pampered prince by the sea.

The author of this opulence was my grandfather, a resourceful Irish kid from South Boston who made his money first in bootleg whiskey and then in coffee. He was charming and good-looking, an elegant dresser who loved women and drink and sailing to Europe on ships, and he talked his way into a temporary prosperity from which, I confess, my family has never fully recovered. He died at age 56, six months before I was born, but just before he did, he bought my grandmother a nine-bedroom house up the street from the Kennedy family compound, a huge white elephant of a place with an elevator, a chauffeur's apartment and fine views of the ocean. He intended that she live there the rest of her days, and she very nearly did, spending what was left of his money in the process.

The West Beach Club, where my grandmother swam a genteel sidestroke every summer day of her 25-year widowhood, was the social center of her life. The club itself was about as exclusive a place as one can imagine. But it was also a relic of an earlier age, a time when the hallmarks of privilege often adopted a threadbare appearance. It was quite plain, just a building to change in and a snack bar to dish out clam rolls and ice cream sandwiches, but it radiated good cheer and plenty, and I passed my summers there, as indolent as a turtle and brown as a penny. In those days, all the dads worked in New York City or Boston during the week and drove up for the weekends, a rhythm that seemed as natural then as it seems completely foreign now. The kids and moms and (of course) au pairs spent the week lolling around on the beach, waiting for dad to show up, whereupon the grown-ups would disappear into a blaze of cocktail parties from which they would not emerge until Sunday morning, blinking like bears at the sunlight. Really, with so much fun to be had, who had time to cook?

A child, I had no idea how fantastic all of this was, what a rare island of American life I had washed up on. I found it in no way odd, for example, that my parents drove a Volkswagen Beetle but summered in a nine-bedroom cottage by the sea, or that the Secret Service kept a security checkpoint in front of my grandmother's house.

A rainy July day, 1969: Was that really me, watching Neil Armstrong walk on the moon on the grainy clubhouse television, sitting beside a boy my age whose uncle, addressing Congress eight years earlier on "urgent national needs," had predicted this very moment? Did I really go to my first drive-in movie in, of all things, a 1959 Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud? (My grandfather purchased this car in the same dying moment that he bought the house.) For a lark, I often claimed to be a Kennedy myself when the tourists asked me for directions to the compound, a lie that nearly always worked. (Rose Kennedy's recipe for Boston Cream Pie can be found on page 123.) The beauty of such recollections is that at the time these unlikely events meant nothing to me at all. They were just my life.

In her last years, my grandmother became what is often politely referred to as "a character." Age and her long solo winters in what was, for all purposes, a summer town, took their toll; her money drained away, gobbled up by the grand illusion of class ascendancy, until even I could see that something had to give. The Rolls went first, replaced by a Toyota Corolla, and then the house itself. By that time I was in college, with a life of my own that did not include lazy summers by the ocean, but I visited her often in winter, taking the bus down from Boston for weekends. She had moved to a modest house in a nearby development, her final, diminished exile. At her kitchen table, she fed me the overcooked lamb chops, Salisbury steaks and defrosted store-bought cakes that were all she knew how to make; she told me stories about the places she'd been and the people she knew—a pastiche of fantasy and reality, to be sure, but wasn't that the point? I didn't know it at the time, but I had become her only audience.

When I remember my grandmother now, it's those last evenings I think of, both of us saying good-bye to a life that, for different reasons, we never really belonged to. My family's toehold on it was always tenuous, and since my grandmother died, I have set foot on Cape Cod only a handful of times—just once in the last 10 years. I'm a middle-class English teacher in a big dirty city, and in the summers I take my four-year-old to the overchlorinated community pool, just like everybody else. For all I know, the moms and kids and au pairs are still baking in the salty sunshine at the West Beach Club, pulling cheese-and-olive sandwiches from the picnic hamper and waiting for the sun to slip past the yardarm. But when something is over for us, we like to think it's over for everyone.

The year my grandmother sent Under Cottage Roofs to me, I was living in Los Angeles and could not afford to fly home for Christmas. Standing in my little apartment with its makeshift tree, a ficus strung with lights, I probably groaned audibly when I opened the package. I read the recipes and had a good laugh at the summering aristocrats, feeding their families Cheese Rarebit on Toast Points and Skillet Macaroni and Beef before ducking out to the next cocktail party, and stuck the book on a shelf. She died four months later.

Since that day 16 years ago, I have moved a dozen times, filling Dumpsters from Italy to Iowa with any possession that seemed even remotely dispensable. My grandmother's cookbook never has. I like to read her recipe for Raspberry Dessert—gelatin, frozen raspberries, vanilla ice cream, all whipped together and left to harden in the refrigerator—knowing I will never make it. I prefer to miss it, as I miss her.

Justin Cronin is the author of Mary and O'Neil, a novel.

Published December 2001
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