We all know that the smell and taste of food can trigger long-forgotten memories. But sometimes they can be triggered by recipes alone. It happened four years ago in Pennsylvania, at my cousin Jane's bridal shower. All the women folk of the family were present baring all the usual gifts: food processors, fondue sets, blenders, pasta makers, Crock Pots, etc.
But everyone's jaw dropped when Jane opened the gift from her Aunt Bonnie. It was one of those fancy blank books that can be found in card stores. In it were about 70 old recipes from five generations and several branches of the family tree. Bonnie had spent a month handwriting the recipes and next to each she wrote a short paragraph on who made the dish and for whom and for what special occasions it was made.
Most of the recipes were from Jane's paternal grandmother, Bonnie's mother, affectionately known as Lulu -- and the name didn't stick for nothing. Though a venerable woman, she could be a lulu sometimes. According to the entry for her Stewed Steak, Lulu would use filet mignon. This drove Bonnie's father, Chester -- a butcher, no less! -- crazy to see such a fine cut of meat used in a slow-cook recipe where a cheap cut of chuck or round steak would work just as well. But to Lulu, a steak was a steak was a steak.
I wasn't there at the shower that day. But with a little imagination, I can picture Jane reading the recipes and the little notes next to them and being transported back to childhood when she and the other the grandchildren would sit in Lulu's hot, stuffy kitchen. Lulu would be there in her day-smock, with a smoldering Kent 110 between her lips, fussing over something good on the stove.
If it were Sunday, she'd probably be cooking Pork Meatballs. "This was a Sunday morning family favorite," Bonnie wrote. "We ate them with Jewish rye bread or sweet rolls. I like ketchup with them when they are hot, and mustard when cold." Being Polish, some kind of steaming mixture of cabbage and potatoes such as Halushki or Pierogi was usually on the menu, too. For dessert, she often made delicate, crispy cookies called Krushchicki.
If it were a holiday, Chester's favorite coconut cake would be on the menu, topped with coconut flakes dyed green for Christmas, red for Valentines Day, purple for Easter, or orange for Halloween. If it were autumn, Bonnie's brothers Ray and Leon might be in the kitchen cooking Czanina, a duck soup made largely of duck's blood, which is delicious if you forget about the main ingredient.
The recipe book is a testament to the power of food in memory recall. Besides the food itself, one remembers long-departed family members, who all of a sudden aren't as long-departed as we may have thought. By honoring your family recipes, you honor your pallet's legacy. It's the ultimate in comfort food.
In the years since the shower, the cookbook has become a family sensation. Copies of the cookbook have been mailed and e-mailed all over the country. Though Bonnie has expressed surprise at the success of the book, I'm not surprised. Bonnie (you might have guessed) is my mother, and I think she knew exactly what she was doing. She understood how strong the memories of those recipes -- and the people who cooked them -- would be. It was a fitting gift from a mother, re-emphasizing that those who give birth also bare the past to future generations.
6 egg yolks
1/4 cup sugar
1/3 cup heavy cream, whipped
1 tablespoon melted butter
1/2 teaspoon salt
Beat the egg yolks until thick and lemon-colored. Gradually beat in sugar. Gently stir in butter. Fold in whipped cream, just enough to make a soft dough. Chill well. Divide dough in half. On a lightly floured surface roll each piece to 1/8 inch thick. Cut into strips 3x3/4 inch pieces. Cut a slit lengthwise in the center of each and pull on end through. Fry a few at a time in hot deep oil (370 degrees) about 1 to 1 1/2 minutes or until golden brown. Drain on paper towel. While still warm sprinkle with powdered sugar. Makes about four dozen.
1 pound of ground pork
3 slices of white bread (crusts removed)
1 tablespoon minced onion, or one small fresh shallot
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon salt
Wet bread. Squeeze excess water from bread. Mash it up. Add all ingredients and mix thoroughly with hands. Mix well. Don't have bread chunks. Store in a covered bowl in refrigerator for a few hours. When ready to prepare, add tablespoon of butter to non-stick skillet. Heat pan. Roll mixture into meatballs. Place in skillet, allowing a little room between meatballs. Cover with a tight-fitting lid. Leave on low heat. After about a half hour turn to brown the other side. Replace lid tightly. Continue cooking another 30 to 40 minutes or until well browned. The tight lid is essential because while they are frying on the bottom, the tops get kind of steamed by the moisture of the bread and give the meatballs a light, fluffy quality. Best eaten hot with ketchup, or cold as leftovers with your favorite mustard.
4 large potatoes
1 large onion
2 teaspoons salt
4 tablespoons flour
Peel and grate potatoes and onion very fine. Add other ingredient. Mix well. Drop by spoonful into hot fat in a skillet. Fry till brown and crisp. Drain on a paper towel. Serve with sour cream, black pepper and chives.
Pumpkin Soup (with potato dumplings)
2 cups of cooked mashed pumpkin
3 potatoes, grated, drained
2 teaspoons of salt
1 cup of flour
Grate potatoes, add salt and eggs, mix well. Add flour. Mix with a spoon until thick and batter holds its shape. Drop by spoonful into boiling water. Simmer till done -- about 15 minutes. Add the cooked pumpkin to the boiling water. Add 1/2 cup of half n' half and two tablespoons of butter. Don't boil after the milk is added.