I must have suspected, with a child’s intuition, that butter was integral to my Grandma’s cooking. But I didn’t realize until much later, when I asked Grandma to share some of her recipes, that entire sticks of butter, or what Grandma referred to as “oleo,” had been melted into the saucepan to ensure sufficient lubrication and flavor-infusion for the rigatoni sauce or the oven-roasted chicken or the succulent meat stuffing she always made for Thanksgiving dinner.
Upon spending the night at Grandma and Grandpa’s house, I’d awaken to the sounds and smells of a well-used kitchen—the gentle scrape of a fork against the bottom of a cast-iron skillet as Grandma swirled a thick pat of butter in preparation for the eggs; the whistle of the tea kettle and subsequent waft of coffee (Grandma always used instant); and the nutty aroma of the butter as it sizzled to a golden-brown hue.
By the time I got downstairs, Grandpa would already be sitting at the red-trimmed aluminum kitchen table reading his morning newspaper, coffee steaming in the cup in front of him. In the middle of the table, a stick of butter and a tube of saltine crackers would rest untouched. Since I was too young to enter the refrigerator by myself (something, to this day, I hesitate to do in that house as a result of those childhood rules), Grandma would pour me a small glass of apricot juice.
Sometimes Grandpa would acknowledge my presence with a “Hullo Susie.” I never knew if he was teasing or if he simply didn’t know my name. Most times, his attention remained focused on the newspaper. One thing I was permitted to do was butter my own saltine crackers. At the time it didn’t occur to me to wonder why, for every other meal, there was fresh Italian bread from Joey’s bakery when, for breakfast, we ate only saltine crackers. The buttered crackers were my favorite part. (In truth, the butter itself was my favorite part, and I would have been much more generous with it had Grandma and Grandpa not been there to covertly supervise from the corners of their respective eyes).
As I commenced buttering, Grandma would crack an egg directly into the skillet, stir it with the fork, and flavor it generously with salt as it flash fried in about thirty seconds. The number of crackers you got to eat with your egg was the number you were able to butter in the amount of time it took Grandma to cook the egg. Sometimes though, you’d make it to the kitchen table early enough to butter more crackers than could reasonably be eaten with the egg. Those days resulted in coffee soup.
After Grandma would slide the egg onto my plate, she’d fix me my own cup of coffee, rich with milk and plenty of sugar, the way children drank it, I supposed. By the time I finished my egg, the coffee would be cool enough to sip. At that point Grandpa would fold up his newspaper, prepare some crackers of his own, glance at my plate, and proceed to crumble his stack of buttered saltine crackers into his mug of instant coffee. I did the same.
I’m not sure it’s possible to describe the taste of coffee soup—rich with butter, savory with saltine crackers, and sweet with sugared coffee that, in my case, had been diluted with milk. As the butter melted, the oil would rise to the top of the mug. The crackers, saturated by the hot liquid, softened immediately, and if you didn’t eat the concoction quickly enough, they would form a sludgepile at the bottom of your mug. But you always ate it quickly, while the coffee was still warm and the crackers retained a measure of texture.
The passing of Grandpa saw an end to my coffee soup days, but the memory remains. Somewhere in time, a little girl sits at a table with her grandpa. In the last few moments of the early morning, they sit in silence spooning sweet, buttery coffee soup, while the grandma bustles around the kitchen preparing all for whatever the day may bring.