Today I made tuna casserole.
I’ve been thinking about my grandmother a lot lately, 11 years after she died and I still miss her terribly. She was exactly what you expect a Grandma to be: she made me great costumes and clothes, remembered all holidays, always had delicious food (fried bologna and eggs were my shit) and took us shopping all the time. To boot, she was two classes shy of her MBA. Not a small feat for a woman of color born in 1908 (I know, she kind of can’t tell what kind of color she was. We used to tease her and she’d always say black, but then we found this out).
I took her to DMV at 88 to renew her license so she could continue to putt around her St. Albans neighborhood – her Toyota Corona was more than 25 years old when she died and had less than 30,000 miles. And she was always clean. Never left the house or received guests without lipstick and her wig, she’d pull a few grey strands out “to make it look more natural” (it didn’t). I guess this is why she could not stand when I wore my hair natural. Hardly a visit went by to her house where she didn’t sneak up on me with a comb to make me more presentable.
Mildred Plair (aka Millie) was the kind of person who never had a bad word uttered about her. She was as close to perfect as a person could get, and there is not a soul who knew her that would say different. She had 5 brothers who called her Sissy and adored her. Apparently she and my grandfather were a special pair, to the day she died she’d always remind me what year anniversary they would’ve been celebrating. She was known in these streets as the best pie maker around, her tour de force being her lemon meringue (considering she used Flako pie crust and My-T-Fine pie filling I think the love people had for her slightly influenced this best pie maker thing).
Later in life, when her walking was not so good, and her hearing was worse (she had standard words she used to make it seem like she understood: Yeah, ok, good, I know..) she still wore her wig, still wore her lipstick and still read the paper every day, cutting out and sending articles to anyone for whom they were relevant (I received a lot of articles on diet. Subtle she was not). She told me the same stories repeatedly and knew it, but that was ok I loved hearing them, and it made her happy to tell them. Her mind was sharp until she was gone, as was her vanity. So vain in fact, that when we had to instruct to remove her breathing tube (she showed me almost every visit where her living will was), the first thing she asked for were her dentures. Second was a hairbrush.
My grandmother was home. She was comfort. There were always Ebony and Jet magazines. I literally visited my grandmother thousands of times, and never tired of going through the attic and basement, looking at old family photos, hanging out in my grandfather’s old office, lounging under the dining room table watching TV (until recently I had this table, it gutted me to let it go), playing Keno, visiting neighbors who were also family, and getting drinks for the endless stream of visitors she had. Buying her Lotto tickets. It always felt the same, no matter what was going on in the world. Her house was always a constant where you could go and feel exactly as you knew you would. There were no surprises, no upheavals, no fights. There was always comfort to be found for all at Millie’s.
Her cooking was very simple and comforting in its predictability – Mac and Cheese, crock pot chicken with dumplings, oven fried chicken, beef stew, meatloaf, cole slaw, iceberg salad with cucumbers (she always raked a fork down the sides of cucumbers and soaked them in white vinegar and ice, so I do too) and pies and cakes. She ate a scoop of ice cream every night; a trait I believe was passed down to my daughter.
I don’t actually remember my grandmother ever making tuna casserole (I think that was my Aunt Norma, who was also comfort), and if she did she certainly would’ve used cream of mushroom soup and button mushrooms. But that dish is just like her and her home. You know exactly what it’s going to taste like before you even bite into it. And right now, in this life I’m living, where I feel like I’m never doing enough for my kid or my husband, where finding a job is looming over me like a black cloud, where every day there’s an ache or a grey hair, a little Taste of Millie is exactly what I need.
I used this recipe, but I used a mix of wild mushrooms instead of white, and a mix of evaporated milk and 2% and whole wheat egg noodles. You need to have a subscription for this website but search around and you’ll find it posted. Here’s a photo of the outcome, which gave me the comfort I was seeking. I split it into two pans and froze one. As a bonus, my “I don’t like stuff in my pasta” kid adored it as well. So next time you feel like your workout or therapist is just not cutting it that day, try this.