Memphis food blogger Cara Greenstein gives her grandma all the credit for her passion for cooking.

By Cara Greenstein
May 01, 2018
Credit: Courtesy of Cara Greenstein

It's difficult to filter the innumerable influences that cultivated my passion for food and its accompanying techniques and experiences. I have, however, recognized an underlying refrain throughout my almost twenty-six years of life. That refrain is embodied in my grandmother, Helaine. It's timely and appropriate that this anecdote falls near Mother's Day, when we cherish the intangible gifts of our matriarchs.

Helaine is the imaginative one who first directly encouraged my discovery to dive into the culinary arts. She and my grandfather live in Florida, yet they made every effort to be a constant force in my childhood. Their trips to Memphis, where I grew up and still live today, were frequent, and their hospitality during our summer vacations would encourage two or three-week-long trips in their neck of the woods.

Surprisingly, Helaine hates to cook. She's great at it, but she considers cooking more of a chore than a past time. I think the trait speaks to her selflessness—that despite her lack of passion for the kitchen, she went above and beyond to celebrate and fuel mine.

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Helaine is the friendly one in any encounter, even with strangers—even The Fresh Market deli manager, to whom she introduced me last time we grocery shopped together for Christmas. So it is no surprise that, every time we'd arrive at her house in my early years, my "pretend restaurant" inventory would grow to include not only the usual plastic food from the toy store, but also borrowed check presenters from the golf club, stolen sugar and ketchup packets from the neighborhood café, and to-go boxes for when my restaurant customers—typically my parents and grandparents on multi-day reservations—couldn't finish their meals.

Helaine is the clever one who, when we were once dining out as a family, invited me to try escargot at age six. She translated the French after I declared my love for the garlicky, buttery delicacy.

Helaine is the helpful one who would bring home restaurant take-out menus to teach me new languages and flavors—how to pronounce "mignonette," how to decide what side dishes would pair nicely on my pretend restaurant menu. She even drove me to the Kinko's to laminate my adorned weekly special menus for longevity.

Helaine is the patient one who, after watching a Food Network episode with me, taught me how to properly cut a cucumber with a sharp knife. We practiced on an entire bag full of produce until I got it down pat.

Helaine is the thoughtful one who, after introducing me to the chef-owner of the Ponte Vedra, Florida Restaurant Madure at age 10, coordinated his donation of an old knife set to me so I could practice in Memphis. She and the chef are still dear friends.

Helaine is the persistent one who, after starting my blog six years ago, has called weekly to ask what I'm planning to stir up next.

I look forward to every opportunity to cook for my grandmother since I truly believe she understands my passion most. She gave it to me, after all.