The Union Of Ladies, Grandma and Rice

My Panamanian born, Jamaican grandmother Maude was a fierce cook. Even though her mother, my great grandmother, cooked to pay her family’s way to New York City by having a food store in Jamaica and a food stall business in Panama, where she fed the men who built the canal, she never taught my grandmother to cook.

She died in New York, when Grandma was 14, leaving her to raise her sister by taking on jobs like reading to Helen Keller and eventually becoming a seamstress. She worked for [Sings: The union label]—The International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU).

I used to go visit her at the factory in the garment district. I can still remember her lighting up when my mom would bring me there. She’d show off her granddaughter to her co-workers and they’d pinch me and say, “Oh, Maude, she’s getting SO BIG.” I always thought that was weird. Was I supposed to get smaller? I never mentioned my snarky thought because I loved Grandma and her co-workers. They made me dresses and dolls clothes from the off-cuts of fabrics and trim from the gowns they made. I had a very glamorous velvet baby blanket for my dollies.

All the women sat at their machines facing each other while they worked, chatting away. They would share food on their lunch break. I would have loved to be there at lunch time. She worked with many other immigrant women from all over the world and they bonded over the one thing that unites people, food.

I think this dish, that we only ever called Grandma’s Rice, was influenced by one of them. It’s a pilaf of rice with olives and Parmesan cheese. Maybe from an Italian co-worker? I make it every Thanksgiving to honor her memory, her love of food and feeding people and because my family loves it.

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