My Oma and Opa lived in a gingerbread house. When I think about my visits there I taste cinnamon, spice and everything nice. They were an unlikely pair. Opa smelled like Fishermen Friends peppermints. He carried them in his pocket, a habit formed after he quit smoking. He was a jolly man from Holland and very keen on puns. He also had a defiant personality; a characteristic I’m told is typical of the Dutch. Oma was always much more sensible and headstrong. To this day, she makes no show of pain. I watched her suffer through breast cancer and beat it: in my mind she is unwaveringly strong, never weak or faltering. On the dark days when Opa lay in hospital with far too many problems to count, Oma firmly believed in the next day and the improvement it could bring.
Before he passed, I told Opa, full of hope and optimism, that when he got out of hospital we would have to make pannenkoeken. I remember that moment clearly - his face lit up. Pannenkoeken, a typical Dutch pancake, requires just flour, salt, egg, yeast and milk. The mixture is runny so it cooks into a thin disk, but simple additions transform it into the ultimate comfort food. Think: rich, nutty, gooey cheese and salty ham cooked into hot pannenkoeken. For something sweet, icing sugar and lemon juice.
When I was twelve years old we spent an afternoon making them. We prepared the ingredients and read our recipe with acute precision, but despite our expectations, things didn’t go to plan. No matter how hard we tried, our pannenkoeken turned out to be more like roerei (scrambled eggs), and it wasn’t until our last attempts that we produced a few perfect pancakes. But our dismal efforts were not in vain; they became something we still joke about, even now that Opa’s gone. That afternoon provoked the kind of laughter that could tone your stomach and make it sore for days; joviality that makes you laugh so much you cry.
This is what I love about food, how it creates lasting memories over shared preparation and consumption. It doesn’t matter if things go wrong in the kitchen. In fact that can sometimes be an integral part of the process; one you remember more than the meal itself.
Thanks to this afternoon, I remember Opa not as he was in hospital, but the joy he exuded in the kitchen. Face flushed and healthy and in eager anticipation for a meal that meant the world, not always because of what it was, but because of who it was eaten with.