For a long time, whenever I heard the phrase “breaking bread,” I thought about a religious ceremony. I envisioned the flavorless, unleavened discs I grew up receiving at Catholic masses after they were lifted, blessed, distributed. It wasn’t until recently that I realized the phrase can (and often does) refer to any instance of communal eating. You don’t typically hear about a person breaking bread alone, although eating alone is common and perfectly acceptable. Breaking bread happens with others, a testament to the atmosphere of camaraderie established by sharing a meal.
The last full day that I spent with my grandmother was centered almost entirely around the breaking of bread. I had planned a very last-minute trip from North to South Jersey, and when I called to be sure she was free for the day, she excitedly confirmed and said she would take me to lunch. That made me squirm a little.
I love eating out as much as the next person, but I didn’t want her to feel as though she needed to feed me just to merit my visit. The purpose of my trip was to relieve a bit of her loneliness, if only for the day. I didn’t mind what we did as long as we were doing it together––we could’ve sat and talked in her living room for all I cared. In true grandparent fashion, though, she loved anything to do with entertaining her grandkids. I knew there was no point in suggesting we stay at her home.
The next day, one sleepy car ride and a huge coffee later, I pulled up to the sidewalk in front of her little white house. I lugged two huge cooler bags out of the backseat, and she opened her door just as I got to the front step. “You came all this way for me!” she said, a little teary eyed.
Before lunch, we had some unpacking to do. Two slices of homemade chocolate cake from my mom were carefully placed in a container, as was a portion of our dinner from the night before. String beans from our garden, lollipops we thought she might like, half a loaf of banana bread. There were also frozen homemade meals for her to store, packed in small Tupperware with labels and dates scrawled on post-its. We wedged the additions into her fridge and freezer, emptying the bags.
The lunch spot of choice, pre-selected by my grandmother, was a small Italian restaurant called Carollo’s. They undoubtedly offered menus on-site, but she had me look up the digital version before leaving so we had extra time to pore over the options. New York arguably boasts some of the best pizza outside of Italy itself, and New Jersey shares this virtue. South Jersey streets are studded with pizzerias, and each takes itself very seriously.
When we pulled up to the restaurant, she explained the pandemic-era procedure for Carollo’s take-out. We went inside, placed our orders, paid, and then waited for the food to be done (all while wearing masks). She had her pick memorized, and I only needed to skim the menu once more to make my final selection. I picked a table on their patio while she waited inside and eventually emerged with a tower of white Styrofoam and a huge grin.
We opened the boxes one by one and arranged them across the table. I was starving. She had a small container of hot French dip for her steaming sandwich, and there were several seasoned rolls to share. My mouth watered when I unboxed my summer salad, sprinkled generously with fruit, goat cheese, and chicken lightly charred on a grill.
Carollo’s has a token dessert that greets guests as soon as they walk in. At the top of the glass counter, next to the register, a metal tray always sits piled high with what look to be slightly enlarged Munchkins. Zeppoles are small balls of fried dough rolled in sugar, and my grandmother never leaves without a few. We had a box of those as well.
The two of us chatted from our spot in the shade, laughing about family drama and wallowing in our self-pity over the uncertainty of the next few months. I told her about my plans for the fall, about our most recent beach trip, and about the ways I had been keeping busy. She was wise and witty in her responses, as usual. When we were both done eating, she asked if we could stay for ten more minutes.
A few hours later, after we had taken the long way back to her house and finished catching up, I was getting ready to head back home. Just as I was about to leave, my grandma pulled out the same ice packs I had carried that morning, and then she began retrieving item after item out of her fridge. We reversed the entire unpacking procedure, as this time she prepared to send me off with her own gifts. Mozzarella cheese she knew our family would use. A box of donuts she told me she would never finish alone. A bottle of pomegranate juice “for the health benefits.” On a whim, she came across a tin of her Christmas cookies in the freezer and tossed them into the cooler as well. “Christmas in July!” she’d laughed. My grandmother’s holiday cookie trays are legendary. I had no idea that she kept an emergency store year-round. She also sent me with all of the zeppoles.
“Grandma!” I exclaimed with mock frustration, “save some for yourself!” She gave me a mischievous smile and waved her hand.
“No, I just had some the other week. You take them,” She insisted.
By the time I got it all into the car, the backseat was just as full as when I had left. I thanked her for the day and told her I would be back soon. We waved vigorously in favor of hugging each other (following pandemic protocols), and I was off.
Very unexpectedly, just five days after I saw her, we received a call explaining that my grandmother had passed away. Who knew that our day together in late July was the last time I would have the privilege to break bread with her? After years of holiday dinners, preschool lunches (she was my first babysitter), and summer breakfasts, the last hours I spent with her were at yet another table together. It was ninety degrees outside, social distancing measures were still in place, and neither of us could be sure how the next few months would look. In that moment, together, none of it mattered. We loved each other, we were happy, and we were content to wonder at the joy that a good meal brings in even the craziest of times. Our conversation wouldn’t have been the same if it wasn’t over food.
There is something incredibly satisfying about nourishing someone you love. To sit shoulder to shoulder or face to face while you eat together, sharing bites and pausing to chew and swallow. Nourishment can also happen from a distance. Shipping cookies in a care package to someone far away, grocery shopping for a significant other … or exchanging miscellaneous foodstuffs through your granddaughter. Separated by a few hours of highway, my mother and grandmother spoke everyday on the phone, but that was something entirely different from opening food that was prepared ahead of time for each other. Food is a currency of love.
Thank goodness my grandmother requested lunch together. I have to get through every meal for the rest of my life without her. What I initially saw as an unnecessary expense for my grandmother is now engrained forever in my memory as one of our most impactful days together. She was one of my favorite people in the world, and we showed affection for one another in many ways, but food allowed us an unparalleled platform for love.