Take some flour. Oh, I don’t know,
like two-three cups, and you cut
in the butter. Now some women
they make it with shortening,
but I say butter, even though
that means you had to have fish, see?
You cut up some apples. Not those
stupid sweet ones. Apples for the cake,
they have to have some bite, you know?
A little sour in the sweet, like love.
You slice them into little moons.
(From: “My Mother Gives Me her Recipe,” by Marge Piercy, Colors Passing Through Us, 2004).
I’ve been thinking a lot about food in the past few weeks. No, not about eating or dieting, but about the history, the stories found in the recipes handed down from mother to daughter or son, grandmother to granddaughter or grandson.
It began in the class I took with local artist, Jane LaFazio, a few weeks ago. A day or two before the first class, Jane instructed us to bring with us some ingredients for a favorite recipe in addition to our art materials. I’d been experimenting with Japanese cooking , and I knew that the mackerel I’d served up a few nights earlier wasn’t the kind of thing I could carry to class. Instead, I pulled an old lined green 3 x 5 index card from the back of an old cookbook. Worn and stained from years of use, the card holds a recipe for “broccoli souffle,” the very first I copied from my mother-in-law’s file as a new bride.
On the way to class, I pulled into the parking lot of a nearby grocery store and bought a few of the necessary ingredients so that I’d have something to sketch and paint. I had such fun doing it that even though it wasn’t the most well executed project, when I completed it two weeks later, I turned the illustrated recipe turned into color postcards to send to my daughters. (Of course, I had to order a minimum of 50, so more than a few friends have been given recipe card for broccoli soufflé!)
That old family recipe hearkens back to a time of practical, easy meal preparation, when just about any side dish contained, as a primary ingredient, a can of Campbell’s mushroom soup. It’s a far cry from the kind of cooking I prefer now, but it’s a recipe that has endured decades of use, multiple relocations, a second marriage, and countless family meals. It’s now the traditional casserole we serve at every Christmas dinner, whether prepared by me or one of my daughters. It’s always enjoyed (despite its high cholesterol and caloric content), and it’s laden with history and memories of people and Christmases past.
It’s true for all of us. Foods lovingly prepared and served at family celebrations triggers memory; stories rediscovered as we take that first bite of soufflé, an aunt’s mincemeat pie, or the warm oatmeal and raisin cookies that once waited on the kitchen table with a glass of milk when we got home from school..
Food also plays a role in our histories—as individuals, and as a people. This week marks the beginning of Passover, and many of my Jewish friends will prepare their traditional Seder meal, where each ingredient plays an important part in the retelling of the Exodus story. My husband and I will celebrate an annual Easter dinner with friends, honoring other religious and historical traditions. When I was young, we celebrated Easter Sundays with my father’s extended family: dozens of aunts, uncles and cousins gathered together for a huge meal and followed by our annual egg hunt in the hillsides of an uncle’s ranch. For weeks afterwards, we’d find boiled eggs in our lunch pails—not at all as enticing as the fun we’d had coloring them.
“Recipes can help bridge generations, reveal unexpected characteristics of a culture, or simply fill an afternoon.” This statement appeared in the introduction to “Recipe for Writing” in The Time is Now newsletter published monthly by Poets & Writers’ Magazine. Think about it. Food enlivens our senses. It’s little wonder a well-loved meal stimulates so many memories. Writing a recipe can get my students thinking about how to detailing action in a narrative. I sometimes hand out a blank 3 x 5 card in my writing groups and have participants begin writing a recipe they remember from an earlier point in life, then after a few minutes, encouraging them to write the memories called up by the recipe.
This week, think about food, about the recipes that have been a part of your family traditions. Or write about the first time you tried to follow a recipe, whether it was familiar or new to you. You might write about the memory of a meal, of life around the dinner table, or the smells and objects in a grandmother’s kitchen. Even food we once loved may become unpleasant because of our associations with it. Whatever it is, begin writing whatever you can remember of a recipe from your childhood or another time in your past. As memories emerge, keep writing. See where they take you. (If you’re at all inclined to pull out your paints or colored pencils, you might even try, as I did, to illustrate your recipe!).
In the yellow kitchen her pink hands
play with creamy dough. Squares of sun frame
things that shine; spoons, cups, hair…
She boils water, opens wine, puts vegetables in pots
Lights click. Smells blossom.
Everything feels suddenly invited.
(From “Pasta,” by Kate Scott, Stitches, 2003)