Janet here: We figured we'd take a break from a recipe today and share with you the essay that got this blog going. I wrote it after my mother died.
A Life Told in Recipes
Some people leave behind diaries or journals as their memoirs when they die. My mother left her cookbooks.
I didn’t realize this at first, of course. A friend helped me clear out my mother’s apartment after her death. She showed me the cookbooks and said, “Don’t look at these now but hold on to them. You’re going to want them. Trust me.”
Fresh from the pain of my mother’s death, I did as I was told and packed the cookbooks in a box in the attic. A couple of years ago, I remembered the cookbooks and pulled them out. I was amazed by what I found.
On the first page of one cookbook, its green cover torn off long ago, was this message, written in the familiar red ink of my mother’s favorite fountain pen: “Please do not destroy enjoyed many years Mom.” I gasped. It was as if my mother had suddenly entered the room.
I eagerly flipped through the pages. Called The Forum Quorum and created as a school fundraiser, the recipes name the local contributor with a quick note, like this one for Chutney Cheese Canape from Mrs. Ralph Hansmann: “This recipe is requested each time it is served. So festive looking!” The cookbook is a window into a time period, an era in which canned vegetables were the norm and “exotic” herbs were spices like curry horseradish.
The book is also a window into my family. My mother’s worn edition has her own personal jottings. Some are just simple red checks next to dishes she tried like the Hot Crabmeat Cocktail Dip or the Stuffed Gouda or Edam Cheese, whose note says “Easy to do, but looks as if it took hours.” Others, like Chipped Beef, I can remember being served. Snappy Tomato Aspic was one of the few recipes where she added her own commentary: “Good.” (For the record, my sister and I were not as enthralled.)
My mother was more prolific in her other cooking mainstay, McCall’s Cook Book, a large blue tome that was THE cookbook of its day. Inside the front cover she wrote in her large loopy handwriting, “I have had this cook [sic] from the day I was married 1953. Really enjoy [sic] many many receipts. Mom 1990.”
This, too, is a book well worn from the joy of cooking. The cover binding is missing. Bits of paper mark pages throughout. Grease stains decorate various pages. A yellowed grocery list from the Village Grocery dates the era of its primary use: my mother had 19 items, including lettuce, turnips, potatoes and cheese, home delivered for $8.20.
My mother’s jottings begin with the opening pages, where she listed the page numbers of favorite recipes. Shrimp Casserole is on page 218. Shrimp Newberg is on 616.
But it is the notes that really intrigued me. With each one I learned more about a woman who, really, was mostly a mystery to me. Next to the recipe for Horseradish Meatballs, for instance, is, “I love horseradish. Good with pasta and sauce,” while the recipe for Ragout of Lamb has two asterisks and the message, “I love lamb.” I had no idea.
The Old Fashioned Bread Pudding was apparently a favorite of my father’s: “Bob loved this.” Lima Beans with Sour Cream were another favorite of his, although not mine or my sister’s: “Good. Bob and I loved this dish. Not J&K.” Another comment made me smile. My father, who is also dead, was a terrific baker, in particular pies. My mother knew better than to compete, a decision made patently clear in her comment for Dutch Apple Pie. “Daddy made his own. I (and this one word was underlined three times) tried this one time…” The recipe for Almond Chiffon Roll, meanwhile, records my mother’s first culinary failure. “My first flop,” she wrote. “1953 I remember so well.”
While satisfying on some level, the cookbooks at first left me wistful and sad, wishing for more. What happened with the Almond Chiffon Roll? Why does she like horseradish? I felt sad and not a little irritated. How typical of my mother to withhold, to tease me with just a little bit of information and leave the rest unsaid.
And then I had an epiphany. True, my mother, who was an alcoholic most of my life, hadn’t given me the information I wanted in the way I wanted it. But that didn’t mean she wasn’t reaching out in her own way. She, too, treasured her family and showed her love through her cooking. The foods she chose, the efforts she put into meals, were her way of saying “I love you.” And now, through her cookbooks, she is feeding me again, and I feel full.