After my maternal grandmother died, and around the time that my grandfather was moving out of the farmhouse and into the big city to be closer to family, and to live a slightly less independent life, most of my family went out to the farmhouse to help clean the place out. This action, of course, was combined with the ability to “take” things that they may have wanted from the home.
That side of my family is Catholic. In my family, it’s quite common to ask for an item that once belonged to the deceased, something to hold onto, to use, to value and appreciate. Something to connect you, over and over again, to the deceased. A relic, of sorts.
When asked what I would like to remember my grandmother by, I asked for something from her kitchen. My grandmother’s kitchen was her domain, her kingdom. She was the literal and figurative head of state in the kitchen. I liked to cook and figured that something from her kitchen would be a practical as well as sentimental choice.
I was given a long handled wooden spoon, a short handled cookie flipper, and a highly annotated book of recipes published by a now defunct spice company. My grandmother wasn’t much of a consumer. She and Grandpa lived in a small town with few very places to shop, so the concept of popping over to Walmart to buy something new when the old one broke wasn’t a quick option. The items in my grandmother’s kitchen had to withstand the test of time. They were well used and well loved, sturdy and practical. I forever see these traits in the relics from her kitchen. The wooden spoon handle is long enough to avoid a steam burn when stirring a big pot of soup or stew and the flipper gets neatly underneath even the most delicate of cookies, and the short handle means few mistakes when transferring things from the cookie sheet to the cooling rack. The cookbook, well that has notes about which recipes worked and which didn’t. It’s also a scrapbook, with recipes clipped out of newspapers and taped to its covers or jammed between its pages.
I haven’t looked at the cookbook for a long while, but the other night one of my aunts asked if I had my grandmother’s strawberry shortcake recipe. Now here’s the thing about family recipes: you have to speak the language to unlock their secrets. Grandma’s strawberry shortcake was fresh strawberries, whipped cream, sugar, and biscuits. The strawberries and whipped cream would have been a given, so I’m pretty sure that I’m just goint to be looking for a biscuit recipe. When Grandma made strawberry shortcake she would cut the biscuits with a mason jar ring and stacking them to double height before baking. These facts likely won’t be in the recipe either (thanks for that reminder, Aunty Joan).
When my mom moved away from home when she was 18 she wrote out a bunch of her mother’s recipes by hand onto index cards. Later on, my mother took cooking classes, and the cue card with directions for chop suey fell to the back of the box, but within these cue cards are some real family heirlooms. The cue cards had more information than just the requisite list of ingredients! They include cooking temps and assembly instructions. Thimble cookies remind you to make a thumbprint in the middle of the dough and fill it with jam (raspberry is best!). Date roll ups tell you to roll the dough thin and slice them crossways. Whenever I’m looking for one of my grandmother’s cookie recipes, I head straight to the cue card box. I might just find the strawberry shortcake recipe in there too!
Tonight I’ll pull out the relics and start the hunt. Seeing my mother’s handwriting, and my grandmother’s handwriting, well, it’ll likely make me cry. Maybe I’ll drink some wine while I do it.