Heritage Moments, Pinches, and Handfuls

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My dad’s mother was from a giant family. Each of her siblings had a few kids, so my dad has a whole pile of first cousins. Just after Connor was born (in 2000), my dad’s sister – Auntie V – wanted to do some Millennium Projects. One of them was collecting up our family recipes into a cookbook that she was going to distribute to all the cousins. At that point, I was appointed the keeper of the family history, so Auntie V hit me up to help her in the compiling of her project. I’m making it sound like a chore. It wasn’t – we sat together for many hours and talked about recipes that her cousins had submitted to her.  It was pretty great listening to her reminisce.

She was thinking that people would submit the comfort foods that we all knew and loved. The Chicken Soup. The Tomato Sauce. The breaded veal cutlets and the homemade sausage. But no. We got banana bread, and Penne alla vodka, and Bean and Cheese casserole. All great recipes, to be sure. But not what we were expecting.

We thought about this for a while, and realized that the reason no one submitted these treasured recipes was either everyone thought someone else was going to submit them, or because we all knew them. I’m pretty sure that no one submitted the classics because there was no point in giving someone a recipe that they already knew how to make. It’d be like giving your sibling your recipe for peanut butter toast – It’d feel ridiculous.

Thing is, though, that my dad’s grandparents, the people who passed all these recipes down to the whole family are long dead. With the death of my Uncle Jack a few years back, all of my dad’s parents’ generation are now gone too. Since there are so many cousins in my dad’s generation, there’s a huge age range there, but we’re starting to have big holes in my dad’s generation, too. So the people who just knew the combination of pinches and handfuls of ingredients to make the sauce and the cutlets and the soup are becoming fewer.

Some recipes, like Auntie Mary Cookies, are already lost to time. She tried to teach us, but there was some Auntie Mary Magic that she had that made her cookies so pillowy and dreamy. She led us in cooking seminars and freely provided her recipe. The trick, she’d say, was double-yolked eggs,  and all the ingredients at room temperature. We followed her directions like we were being graded by Gordon Ramsay. She made these amazing cookies; we all made hockey pucks. Hers were truly the cookies that dreams are made of. Ours, notsomuch. Lovely lemon-scented icing drizzled on a hockey puck is still a hockey puck.

We’re at the point where my generation keeps in touch with cousins with whom we want to keep in touch, but the family ties are looser now. I find this sad, but I can’t say that I’m doing much to fix it. Beyond (most of ) my own first cousins, there are only two families of further-flung cousins that I keep in touch with at all. I love them, and when we’re together, it’s like it’s always been. But really, I’m not even good at keeping as closely in touch with them as I feel like I should either. When I was talking to one of them last year, she suggested that we start having family dinners together, like we did when we were kids. We did the first one in the spring, and guess what we made – all the things our grandparents made. Of course we did. We also made the vast amounts that they would have. Because what if everyone wants to eat 12 cutlets and 6 sausages? It would be scandalous if we didn’t have enough, amiright?? It’s our blessing and our curse that we will always make waaaay too much.  Even the scaled back amounts are massive. My cousin who hosted that night admitted to me that she planned the menu, scaled back by a third, and there was still enough for everyone to eat all week. It is the way of our people.

Now, we’re at the point where my generation needs to pass on those recipes that we all just knew in our marrow. Some of us learned at the hip of a grandparent or uncle or aunt, but some never did. And I was Child’s age when I learned much of what I know. Time for me to record the oral history of the food of my family. Child likes to cook. This isn’t my scheming face, I swear.

I know that there’s still lots of warm weather to come, but last night, there was a chill in the air, which always makes me think of my uncles, making tomato sauce with the garlic and bay leaves plucked from their own gardens. And that puts me on a slippery slope to the comfort food of my youth.

So. Starting next week, I’m going to debut a new feature of the Chronicles: Foodie Friday.  Buon appetito, friends!

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