"Your grandmother is wearing a red leather miniskirt," my best friend announced as we dressed for my wedding. She had glanced out the window and spotted Gramma, who was not completely steady, but not hobbling either, in a quintessential Gramma outfit: silk blouse in a Miro print; leather hemline strategically above the knee; skinny, almost-stiletto heels. The skirt was indeed red and, at 84, Gramma still had the legs for it.
I was too busy futzing with my bustle to check out Gramma's attire, but then again, I didn't need to. Though she never mentioned it, I knew exactly where Gramma had purchased her ensemble -- Marshall Field's, the grande dame of Chicago department stores. And I knew which treat she had bought for herself during her shopping excursion -- the store's signature candy, Frango mints.
Gramma was mostly indifferent to food -- she'd rather spend her money on a fabulous scarf than a foie gras any day -- but she loved Frangos. She taught my brother and me, her only grandchildren, to love them too. We received Frangos for virtually any occasion: birthdays, graduations, brises (well, maybe not brises).
Even shopping trips.
Gramma owned a women's shoe store and boutique, so naturally she took charge of my wardrobe. When I was 6 or 7, we made our first back-to-school pilgrimage to Field's. I felt the confidence that comes from being with an expert. Field's was her territory, sort of like a vacation home on State Street. She knew the landscape.
Grabbing my hand, she led me up winding escalators and around mysterious mannequins to the children's department. Within seconds, she was choosing one outfit after another and hauling them to the dressing room as if she owned the place.
A saleswoman trotted after us. "Could you be a dear and get us the blue blouse in a bigger size?" Gramma called over her shoulder. The blouse and a dozen more possibilities crowded our changing booth. Gramma appraised one combo of purple plaid hot pants and matching tube top with puffy sleeves. "You look like a living doll," she said, hugging me. She knew what was in style for first-graders better than I did. Somehow I understood this.
When the pile of discards had grown as colorful and layered as a trifle, Gramma was finally ready to pause. "Oh, honey, I'm exhausted," she confessed. "Let's stop for 'coffee and.'" She meant milk and a snack for me, coffee and a cigarette for her. (It took years before I realized the expression "coffee and" is unique to Chicago.)
While Gramma paid for my forgettable store-cafeteria meal, I helped myself to a Frango. They were rectangular -- tall, thick, substantial. They didn't mush under your grasp. There was a certain way to eat them. For the first taste, I didn't bite. I just scraped a shred of chocolate with my teeth, then a little more.
I actually hated mints. "Mints" were those chalky-white restaurant giveaways that stick in your teeth, or the patties filled with wintergreen glop the flavor of Crest. But this, this had little to do with mint, really. The Frango tasted something like my grandmother's personality, sweet and a little salty at the same time. (I'd once heard Gramma describe a relative as "that bitch." Though I wasn't positive what bitch meant, I had a feeling I knew, and I agreed with her description. Frangos tasted like that -- predictably sugary, then a savory surprise.)
I lagged a few paces behind my grandmother in the store that day, tracking her ash-blond hair and volume of shopping bags. That smell -- cocoa with a faintly provocative snap -- was not coming from my half-eaten Frango, I realized, but from everywhere. Frangos were baked, boiled or however they were cooked on the store's 13th floor, and their perfume scented the entire building. Marshall Field's wore Eau de Frango.
We passed a tower made of little Frango containers. Though somebody must have bought those demure boxes of four mints, each mint skirted in a dainty pleated doily, I couldn't imagine why. I knew you needed at least two dozen Frangos to feed an extended family from grandparents to kids, with maybe a shaving from one mint for the baby. We bought Frangos in deep green boxes the size of a dachshund.
I wish I could say Gramma did something creative with Frangos especially for me -- whipped up Frango pie or Frango French toast or stuffed a turkey with them. She didn't. Gramma never considered herself much of a cook. She was legendary for forgetting a course on the stove no matter what the meal -- simple supper or holiday feast. We'd be finishing the stuffing or slicing the cake when suddenly she'd gasp "Oh!" and then burst from the table and run toward the kitchen, where that unknown, now-overcooked something smiled at her from the oven. (During my junior year in college, I duplicated this technique by inadvertently baking a potato for nearly 24 hours, producing a midnight-black skin with absolutely nothing left inside.)
In this city of immigrants, Gramma had arrived in Chicago from Russia, a 4-year-old with not even a birthday to call her own. (Her best friend on the boat gave her April 20.) Suddenly she had a whole city to claim. By the time I was 4 and a regular visitor, Gramma was in possession of the entire metropolis. The windows of her apartment -- No. 2417 -- offered a skyline view: Lake Michigan and yachts on the left, Buckingham Fountain, the Art Institute and architectural treasures on the right.
Like Gramma and thousands of other Chicagoans, when I grew older I embraced Frangos as part of my town. They had equal ranking with deep-dish pizza, the blues and the Cubs. Even when Field's bastardized the brand with nouveau flavors (the raspberry tasted a little like cough drops; the double chocolate lacked that Frango finesse; and we won't even discuss the caramel, good for $1,000 in dental work), I kept the faith.
Gramma was my Frango supplier while I was in college in New England and later when I married and moved to the South. When I was pregnant with my first child, I called her about my cravings. She promised to see what she could do.
"It didn't work out," she reported, a little anguished, the next day.
"I went to Field's. They won't send Frangos through the mail in the summertime."
"Oh no." Now I was anguished.
"But don't worry. I found you a good substitute."
I couldn't imagine an adequate replacement, but thanked her anyway. A few days later a gift box arrived bearing a jar of Frango mint ice cream topping and a small metal scoop. I ate the topping straight, using the scoop. At 91, Gramma was still sustaining life.
Of course it couldn't last forever. Marshall Field's eventually was purchased by Target, of all companies. Gramma would never have set foot in such a store. In spite of the Depression, which turned many grandmothers into the kind of women who washed and reused tinfoil, in spite of the night in 1932 when Grandpa finally found a job, threw his first-day earnings on the bed next to the baby and gleefully shouted, "Sara! Look! Look!" Gramma had high-end taste. Target's ultrahip advertising campaign would not have impressed or fooled her.
Last year, the new Field's bosses did the unthinkable. They shut down the 13th-floor Candy Kitchen, the largest department-store candy factory in the world, and outsourced the entire operation to some chocolatier in Pennsylvania. Chicagoans reacted with outrage. It's a "Frango fandango!" wrote one Tribune columnist. Another said she remembered her first Frango as vividly as her first Communion. Mayor Richard Daley ripped into the company for ignoring tradition and laying off more than 100 workers. But the outcry didn't help. For the first time since the 1920s, Frangos were no longer made on State Street.
A few months after the announcement, one month before the birth of my second child, Gramma died in the way she had hoped, still living somewhat independently at 97. I am not so sentimental to think these two departures from Chicago are connected.
But I do imagine my grandmother busy with new celestial activities, and they aren't cooking soup or playing mah-jongg. She is whipping Frangos into baby food for the 10-month-old great-grandson she never met. Or arranging for Frangos to bubble from Buckingham Fountain. Or holding me close, then twirling me in that leather skirt I inherited. We're doing a dance called the Frango.