I just got home from dropping my son off at play rehearsal and entered a house that smelled just like my grandmother’s house did when we arrived for a visit and a fresh, welcoming pot of vegetarian goulash was warm on the stove.
What a happy, comforting feeling!
Today is my grandmother’s birthday. She would have been 95, which makes it the fourth year that she has not been physically present for her birthday celebration. We sat around enjoying “Great Grandma’s Goulash” and sharing memories of her. It looked just like her goulash and smelled just like it, too. I thought it tasted just like it, although my son insisted that – although it’s really close – next time I must buy the brand of tomato soup that she used, to make it completely authentic…even though some of the ingredients in it make me shudder.
Isn’t it incredible how powerful smells are in recreating an atmosphere that makes you swear your dearly beloved relative or friend just left the room for a moment and could walk back in any second? As much as we want to remember how someone looked or sounded, sometimes it’s certain smells that bring them back to us most poignantly. The aroma of a familiar meal cooking can be one of the closest experiences to being in that person’s actual physical presence.
For Christmas, my mother-in-law gave each of her children a beautiful, homemade recipe album that is a real work of heart.
The recipe album – which is perhaps best described as her culinary memoirs – includes not only the recipes themselves (handwritten on index cards) but also typed narratives, old photos, and notes that provide the context within which the meals were shared.
For her last birthday, I gave my own daughter a large binder of favorite recipes that featured many she enjoyed as a child. It wasn’t as artful or narrative as my mother-in-law’s gift, but it was very important to me to pass the recipes along to Jasmine.
My mother-in-law and I both love to cook, and one thing we both know is that you can cook up someone’s presence by making foods they used to either serve or request. I think that is why it was so important to both of us to pass down our most treasured recipes to the next generation. For example, I have always remembered my vegetable jambalaya recipe as the last meal my former father-in-law had a taste for before he died. Some part of him exists within that recipe simply because he loved it and requested it when nothing else appealed to him. It was a way in which I cared for and nourished him and is a vehicle of love.
My grandmother’s presence is invoked magically by making her goulash and a couple other recipes I’m so glad I had the foresight to ask her for while she was still alive. She would keep the ingredients on hand, and if we called to say we were going to visit, she’d have a batch ready by the time we arrived. My mom’s signature dish is her macaroni and cheese. My mother-in-law’s might be her creamed onions. Mine is probably baked ziti with two sauces: red and white. But at another time, it might have been my mom’s tuna noodle casserole or my Mexican pie or tofu pot pie – or perhaps the “love soup” I traditionally make when someone is sick or the Christmas Eve menu I make to accompany our favorite Christmas movies. When I think of foods from my childhood, Chocolate Crinkle cookies from the ubiquitous Betty Crocker’s Cooky Book come to mind. Although I haven’t made them in decades, I’m certain that mixing together the ingredients would bring me back to making the cookies with my mom in the kitchen of my childhood home. Our spirit – and memories of happy times together – live on in the recipes we leave behind. In the delicious fragrance of vanilla extract being measured into a teaspoon.
My refusal to buy the soup laden with high-fructose corn syrup that my grandmother used to make her signature goulash got me thinking about what gives these special foods their magic. Must they be recreated authentically? Can you substitute an ingredient and still make it “work,” or is that cheating? My son admonished me for tweaking my grandmother’s recipe to make it more healthful, explaining that it’s only a once-a-year indulgence, so keep it real for Pete’s sake! Cooking such special recipes conjures comforting memories. I am talking about comfort food in the fullest sense of the term – food that appealed to everyone’s diverse tastes, brought us together, and made us feel content and happy. My baked ziti is not what I tend to make when I’m hungry or want something healthful to eat. It’s the dish everyone requests for family get-togethers, and it nourishes in a different way. It makes you feel loved! Like my grandmother with her goulash, I make sure to have baked ziti ingredients on hand so I can make it on the spur of the moment if my daughter calls to say she’s visiting. (And of course, she gets to take home the leftovers.)
Family recipes and the stories around them are an important, intimate thread of family history. Which ones will you share? Which recipes will you want to acquire from loved ones in order to conjure happy, comforting memories?
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