Time after time this holiday season, I reached for the phone on the kitchen counter to call my mother-in-law in Ohio. Then I remembered, I’m on my own now making family favorites.
For years, her special holiday dishes grounded our family traditions. It’s just not Thanksgiving without Rene’s dressing, Christmas without her sweet potato pie, New Year’s Day without her black-eyed peas.
Rene’s death last winter left a hole in our lives. I could will myself not to think about her absence, until I sat at the kitchen table pawing through piles of old recipes, searching for some written link to her culinary legacy.
How much green pepper goes in the dressing? How many eggs in the sweet potato pie? And why in the world had I never taken the time to write her recipes down?
I’ve made those dishes a million times, but relied on our connection for guidance. I felt the need for Rene’s familiar voice, talking me through it again this year.
That was the tradition. But this is real life. So I settled for a sorry substitute, and parked myself in front of the computer to Google recipes for “corn bread dressing” and “sweet potato pie.”
There is nothing lonelier than spending a holiday that celebrates family online, sorting through suspect advice from faceless strangers about a dish your heart is craving and your hands can’t find.
My mother-in-law, like my mother, grew up on a farm in Alabama in an era when written recipes were pointless, if not a sacrilege. Meals were standard, simple and subject to whatever ingredients were on sale or on hand — in the field, the silo, the chicken coop.
Cooking was a communal effort and recipes passed down naturally. Girls grew up making familiar dishes; their hands retained the memories.
Those girls married and migrated north. My mother raised us on a mix of her Southern standards and Betty Crocker’s recipes. It was tradition back then at bridal showers for every guest to bring a favorite recipe. The hostess assembled the collection and presented it as a gift to the bride-to-be — arming new wives with kitchen-tested meals instead of sexy lingerie.
My generation augmented that with gourmet cookbooks and recipe files. Now, my daughters have moved past that, relying for cooking advice on TV chefs and reviews of recipes online.
It’s a public evolution — not unlike the private progression I documented this week as I sorted through 30 years of accumulated recipes. It felt like an archaeological dig, tracking changes in taste and technology, and my passage from newlywed to mother to solo lifestyle.
The oldest are recipes I clipped from newspapers and pasted onto index cards when I was new to Los Angeles and had a backyard garden, an adventurous husband and plenty of time on my hands.
Then come batches of handwritten favorites: the Never Fail Pie Crust from my late Aunt Ida; the Zucchini Bread from a neighbor who moved to Nebraska; the Noodle Kugel from a baby-sitter who taught my daughters about Hanukkah.
Then come the Internet printouts, Whole Foods offers and recipes ripped from magazines in the waiting rooms at doctors’ offices. Some of those I can’t explain; most of them I haven’t tried. Some rely on equipment I don’t own or ingredients I’ve never liked.
But others have become family staples, like the chili I make on cold nights or the crepes I whip up for my youngest when she comes home from college.
And some recipes have become so special, we simply can’t do without them:
Like Mrs. Bucka’s Chocolate Chip Butter Cookies ... which went missing from the pile this year, leading to a Christmas meltdown at our house.
Julie Bucka was my oldest daughter’s kindergarten teacher. The daughter is 26 and a Stanford grad; Mrs. Bucka gets some credit for that. She taught my daughter how to read — and tried to teach me how not to be an overbearing mother.
But what she’s best known for in our household is a 21-year-old faded, crumpled and butter-stained Christmas cookie recipe.
Mrs. Bucka made the cookies for her class and handed out the recipe. I made them with my daughters for years; the cookies were buttery, sweet and melt-in-your-mouth delicious.
They became my oldest daughter’s signature dish. She made them for high school parties and college feasts. She is, to put it gently, not in her element in the kitchen. But her cookies are always an incomparable, can’t-miss, holiday potluck hit.
So on the afternoon of Christmas Eve, I could feel a crisis brewing when my daughter — home for the weekend — searched my overflowing, out-of-order recipe box and couldn’t find either the ancient original or the copy we made years ago for safekeeping.
I can’t believe you lost it! she kept yelling. I can’t believe you don’t have your own copy! I yelled back, embarrassed by the chaos of my culinary bin. Insults flew, tears were shed. Emotions were in overdrive. She was due at a Christmas potluck in hours and there was nothing like Mrs. Bucka’s cookies to be found on the Internet.
I searched my inbox, vaguely remembering some long-ago email correspondence. And there, like a shining star on a pitch-black night, was her kindergarten teacher’s email address.
“DESPERATE PLEA” I wrote in the subject line. “THIS IS A CATASTROPHE OF IMMENSE PROPORTIONS.” I begged for that old cookie recipe. Then I retired to the kitchen to search my piles for a second-best alternative.
What are the odds, I figured, that a retired teacher we hadn’t talked to in 20 years would check her email at 5 p.m. on Christmas Eve?
Five minutes later, she’d emailed back and the recipe was printing out.
Who says there’s no Santa Claus?
And now I’m bound to keep a promise. My New Year’s resolution is to organize that recipe box.