Thursday, March 29, 2012

Cooking and Memories

The tie between food and memory has been on my mind a lot lately.

I keep thinking about time spent in my grandmother's kitchen, both eating and learning to cook.  As far as I know, I am the only one she ever taught all of the secrets to making her spaghetti sauce.  My aunts all knew that she sweetened it with carrot, but apparently no one but me knew she always put in chicken thighs.  That's because when it had cooked long enough for the thighs to be almost ready to fall off the bone, my grandmother would take them out and hide them as a rare treat just for herself.  Women who raise large numbers of children almost never have something just for themselves.  I feel so privileged that she shared her secret with me and I still put thighs in as a treat for the cook when I make her sauce. 

A few days ago The Pioneer Woman hosted a fabulous giveaway (3 iPads, which I did not win, dang it) on her blog asking people to tell her what they would most like to have for dinner tonight if they could have anything at all.  I immediately craved a plate of my late Aunt Joan's roast beef hash that she made from leftovers from her lovely roast beef, potatoes and gravy.  I swear, for a moment, I could smell her kitchen, the lovely meaty aroma mixed with cigarette smoke and coffee brewing.  I spent a lot of time in that kitchen growing up.  Even as a rotten tween I was in there drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes and arguing politics with my grown up relatives (who I realize now were smiling behind their hands at my naive opinions).  Ok, so I was a weird kid, and the smoking and coffee drinking probably horrifies those of you who have kids that age now, but it was a different time and those hours are so precious to me.  I was built on that time, made from those conversations, from all that was shared between us. 

Yesterday Jennifer Perillo also held a giveaway (a new pasta maker - it's still open) on her blog In Jennie's Kitchen, here. She told a heart-wrenching story about how she learned to make pasta to make her husband Mikey happy and how it became a family staple until his unexpected and sudden death last August.  Now their tired, worn-out old pasta maker will be retired as she can't bear to use it again. Instead, it will become a conversation piece on her fireplace mantle. It is one way for her to preserve the memory of special family time spent with the husband she mourns so deeply. 

All of the women in my family make cabbage balls every once in a while.  Ours doesn't taste anything like most recipes I've seen for stuffed cabbage.  I have a lot of aunts and cousins and the funny thing is that, no matter who makes it, me, my mom, an aunt or a cousin, it tastes exactly the same. I suspect that, for each of us, it takes us back to my grandmother's kitchen, large numbers of us gathered around her table, sharing food and family gossip and making memories that would have to sustain us after some of those faces around the table were gone.

When I get homesick, and boy do I, it is not just for the rural Upstate New York of my youth.  I get homesick for a time and a place and my family as it once was. At her 70th birthday party my mother surprised us all with a cookbook full of family recipes from her grandmother's generation down to mine.  What a treasure that book is!  I will read it over and over like the story of my family, and share it with my niece and nephew.  Both of them love to spend time with me and my mom in the kitchen learning to cook dishes both old and new. There is no smoking these days, but I do slip my nephew the occasional cup of coffee.  My niece doesn't care for it. I wonder if they, at 8 and 11, have any idea that we are making memories that will help shape them, be part of them, and last through their lifetimes?  Will they look back someday, a memory triggered by some random thing, and long for some of my cooking and the love that it represents?  I suspect that they will.