Food Matters: Recipe for a very long life |

Food Matters: Recipe for a very long life

Amanda Rae

Our day began with a decadent breakfast of fruit and French toast, made with Tsoureki and drizzled with pure Vermont maple syrup. I’d picked up the loaf of sweet, braided bread at a bustling Greek bakery in Tarpon Springs, en route to New Port Richey from Tampa International Airport courtesy of a really nice Uber driver. A traditional Easter Sunday treat, the glossy, golden loaf was coated in sliced almonds and studded at one end with a single fuchsia egg.

During the meal, my mom, grandmother and I discussed possible baking methods: Was the dyed egg added to the loaf raw or was it hard-cooked beforehand? Parboiled? Should we eat it? Remarkably, none of us had a smartphone handy, so we explored the convoluted path of dialogue that stems from wondering aloud and debating ideas, without immediate access to Google. (And yes, we ate the egg; it was rubbery.)

Then we headed 35 miles south to Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, where the Tampa Bay Rays faced off with the Boston Red Sox in the fourth game of its opening series. Despite our Massachusetts allegiance (and my mom’s surprise Sox knowledge), we rooted for whichever team was at bat, though marveling at the impressive number of scarlet shirts scattered around the indoor stadium. We shared a decent pressed Cuban panini and a ballgame hot dog, each split three ways. The Sox won 2-1, and Grandma even got a souvenir baseball to take home.

Heading back north following the game, we stopped in Clearwater to dine at a Spanish restaurant perched on the beach. While we waited for a table on the deck overlooking Sand Key, we ordered drinks: margaritas for Mom and me, virgin Bloody Mary for Grandma. A setting sun turned the sky pink.

Soon enough our server rolled over a bowl-topped cart to prepare the restaurant’s signature starter: “Columbia’s Original 1905 Salad.” One by one, she added ingredients — iceberg lettuce, tomato, olives, julienned ham and Swiss cheese, freshly grated Romano cheese, garlic dressing — tossing ’em all together to make a dish far greater than the sum of its parts with campy flourish. We ordered red snapper, stuffed shrimp, and crab cakes to share, and ate slowly while watching birds scuttle over the wet sandbar and dolphins leap in deeper water.

After the leisurely meal, our server reappeared with a bevy of colleagues. “Cumpleaños feliz, cumpleaños feliz….” A shiny, tanned flan with just the right amount of jiggle was dropped, topped with a single flickering candle. It was a fitting finale to April 1 — a triple whammy of Easter Sunday, April Fool’s Day and my grandmother’s 97th birthday.

My mom’s mother, Lois Butler, has lived alone in a gated community in Florida midway down the Gulf of Mexico at least a decade, maybe two. She still prepares her own meals and recently renewed her driver’s license for another five years. Though she hasn’t been driving her Chrysler much on her own since twisting an ankle a few months ago, her longtime housekeeper, Dolly, takes her out weekly for errands to the bank, grocery store and doctor’s appointments. My mom heads down from New England once or twice a year to visit, cook up meals to freeze, and tour assisted-living facilities, which my grandmother, of course, prefers to resist.

On the night of her birthday, we arrive home some 11 hours since departure (St. Pete spring break traffic jams, whoops) and remember that we have one final treat to share: German chocolate cake, the birthday gal’s favorite. Mom and I settle in to hear our wise matriarch share stories dating back to her childhood, which began in 1921.

After listening to half an hour of lucid dates, details, observations and opinions spoken in rapid-fire, I can’t help but ask: What’s your secret?

I was curious about my 97-year-old grandmother’s eating habits, honed since studying nutrition and home economics at the University of Maryland, class of 1942.

“I don’t use sugar, and I try not to ever miss a meal,” she replies. “Three meals a day, and I always, always try to eat something for lunch. I don’t have my big meal in the middle of the day, I have it in the evening. But I try not to eat it too late — by 7 p.m.”

These meals are mostly vegetables with some kind of protein. She’ll slice up carrots, yellow squash, zucchini, eggplant and potatoes to toss in coconut oil and roast in a countertop toaster oven. She estimates consuming one bunch of kale per week — usually topping the roasted or boiled leaves with seasoned rice vinegar for kick. “The other vinegars are too pungent,” she explains.

Though we’ve eaten a lot of bread today, Grandma says that’s out of character. More often that not, she begins her days with oatmeal, adding flaxseed, banana, and low-fat milk to the bowl. Lately she’s been adding a squeeze of lemon, too — over vegetables and plain yogurt also — since Dolly delivers bags of citrus cut from a prolific backyard tree.

“I eat a tomato every day, almost,” she adds. Any snacks? Lois shakes her head side to side. “Well, I snack on fruit — apples and all kinds of fruit,” she backtracks. “I eat a banana every day.”

Sometimes she’ll enjoy breakfast for dinner, warming an egg and bacon atop a shallow casserole pan of mixed vegetables.

“And I eat right out of that pan,” she continues, matter-of-factly. “No dishes to wash! That’s a big part of it: I can’t stay up there and wash dishes.”

When I press on, my grandmother chalks up her good health to good fortune.

“I’ve been lucky,” she says, shrugging. “Every doctor since I was 20 years old has said to me, ‘You’ve got the organs of a —,’ and they’ll always say 10 years younger than I really am. That’s what they’ve been telling me all these years!”

When I recap my Southern sojourn to a friend, he chimes in about his own grandmother, who lived until the age of 96. Her constant? Coca-Cola daily. I can tell by the way he tells me, “She drinks a Coke a day!” that, obviously, it’s a point of defiant pride.

“I think it’s more about having a ritual,” my friend muses. And he might be right. Perhaps it’s about treating oneself well in the pursuit of happiness that is the key to living longer than nine decades.

Much to my mother’s chagrin, my grandmother Lois has a glorious guilty pleasure.

“I eat a little chocolate ice cream almost every night,” she says, quickly listing off her top three favorite brands and flavors and which ones are stocked at Publix, Winn-Dixie or both. Maybe eating chocolate ice cream reminds the widow of life in rural Maryland with her first late husband, my mom’s father, a dairy scientist at Sealtest. Or maybe it’s just something delightful to look forward to at the end of the day.

Amanda Rae looks forward to celebrating the big 9-8 with Grandma Butler next year! @amandaraewashere

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