It’s that time of the year when I reach up high to the top shelf of my pantry and pull down my recipe box. Blowing the dust off the top, I sit for a minute and smile with bittersweet anticipation. A treasure trove of memories this box contains. Recipes given to me by cherished family members and friends, each uniquely penned in handwritten form or typed out in colorful detail. Many of these recipes have been passed down from one generation to the next and to change the amount of an ingredient or add a new one to the mix would be sacrilegious. I pull the recipes out one by one and, as I think about the people who gave them to me, my heart becomes full. I trace my finger over the handwritten note from my dad’s mother, Mo, and smooth out the crumpled paper listing the steps for my grandmother Mamo’s Crumb cake. I have to stop and grab a snack just to get through reading my dad’s instructions for preparing Thanksgiving stuffing, and I take comfort in seeing my mother’s cursive writing detailing her recipe for Cinnamon Rolls. I can take to the internet and search Pinterest to mix up our weeknight dinners, but nothing can replace the love and memories contained in this box disguised in the form of recipes.
In the planning and in the preparation of these recipes, I am keeping traditions alive for my sons, as well as for the little girl within who looks to the Holiday Season with childlike excitement. Is there anything better than the first bite of Mo’s Snickerdoodle cookie or a jelly filled Thumbprint? Oh, the pure delight in sampling Dad’s piping hot Thanksgiving stuffing and, while I always pass on the Pfeffer Nuesse cookies and the Mincemeat pie, I am completely happy to keep the company of Aunt Julie’s Gingerbread Man cookie. Through marriage, I have added Rice and Peas with gravy and Bird cookies to my “favorites” list and, while I will never make either as well as Phoebe or Olga, I am content to keep trying for the sake of tradition.
When I pull out a recipe, I am immediately reminded of the person who gave it to me. They could just live up the street, or in another state, but for just a few minutes, they are sitting with me in my kitchen, and all is well. As the Holidays approach, the recipes I reach for more often than not are the ones handed down from a family member who has passed away. As I measure out the flour for Mo’s Snickerdoodle cookies, I can see her seated at my counter, updating me on each and every family member, while intensely eyeballing the precision of my measurements. As I pour the batter of Mamo’s Crumb cake into the pan, I can smell her Charlie perfume, and it is in her comforting presence that a memory starts to stir. I am a young girl, visiting Indiana and standing in my grandparent’s kitchen. Mamo was preparing to make her cake, and my mother stood next to her, pen in hand, determined to commit the recipe to paper. Instead of traditional measurements, such as teaspoons, tablespoons, and cups, Mamo used pinches, dashes and handfuls. This made passing along a recipe very difficult. With each new ingredient Mamo “measured” out and added to the bowl, my mother’s initial frustration at trying to convert “about this much flour” and “just a pinch of salt” to cups and teaspoons, soon gave way to humor and laughter. As the exchange continued, we all got into the act, and by the time they were finished, and the cake went into the oven, we all had tears running down our cheeks. I have made my grandmother’s Crumb cake many times over through the years, but it has never tasted as good as it did that day, standing in her kitchen surrounded by the people I love.
Recipes insist we revisit our cultures, take pride in the diversity of our experiences, and celebrate our traditions through food. Often times, the mention of a recipe will prompt stories of past holidays and allow my family to laugh together, cry together, and fill the room with the spirits of our loved ones. As my children hear these stories, they learn how food is connected to tradition, and they begin to understand the importance of passing on these traditions to their own children. Someday, they will spend Thanksgiving chopping up cranberries for relish or mixing eggs into the stuffing mix by hand and, in doing so, they will connect with their grandparents, bringing them to the present and share their memories with the future generation of chefs in the room. These shared stories and memories also serve as a reminder for us older folks. We must not forget, the food on our tables represents our heritage, our culture, and our family. On Thursday, millions of meals will be served in millions of homes around our country; each uniquely different and representative of the people present. This Thanksgiving, as I sit down to eat with my loved ones, I will take a moment to appreciate the magnitude of history, sacrifice, hard work, preparation, and love – oh so much love – that went into creating the dishes that lay before me.
There is not a Pinterest recipe in the world that can compete with the ones in my recipe box. Try as you might, you will never improve a sacred recipe because what makes it taste so good are your memories and the love you feel for the person who wrote it down. These are the two most important ingredients that can take a common recipe and make it extraordinary. For those of us who have the fortune to spend Thanksgiving with the people we love enjoying our favorite foods, let’s give thanks for tradition and remind ourselves of the connective bonds that are woven into our recipes. Beneath all of the ugliness in the world, there is good, and the best of that good rest in the heart of your memories, is penned in your stories and surrounds the feast at your table. If, however, tensions should rise as they sometimes do when families come together, just head to the kitchen and grab some plates and coffee mugs; there is very little a cup of hot chocolate, and a Snickerdoodle cookie can’t fix. Ask me, I’ll send you the recipe.
Do you have a favorite recipe that reminds you of your culture or a loved one? Please share the recipe and your story in the comment section below. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!