Food: my beginning, my means, my end. {My culinary blood heritage}

My mom, Jean, began cooking when she was sixteen. Everything I learned about food, from young to seventeen years, I learned from her. We still ask for her "secret" recipes for bean enchiladas and spanikopita and chocolate cake. I desperately want her to write a cookbook someday. And if she ever opens her restaurant, I will eat there all the time. 

She tells us stories of her dad, Norm, who loved to grow tomatoes in his garden.

And her mom, Dorothy, was a good cook. That's what they tell me. My child memory has only a few family recipes, some stories (like the time she left the ham soup on the stove after she went to bed and smoked the dog out of the kitchen), and some memories of her trying to feed us kids overcooked broccoli and ten-year old home-canned cherries.

My mom’s aunt Alice loved to cook on the family farm out in Delia, Alberta. Good, hearty meals that stuck to the ribs of long-working farm hands. I don’t remember my great-aunt Alice; she died when I was very young.

But I do remember my great-aunts, Kay, Elaine, Thelma. Kay was famous at family gatherings for her cherry pies, made with sour cherries picked fresh from her backyard trees. For years, my dad raved about those pies. I don't remember their taste. I suppose I’ve never attempted one in my own kitchen because I’m afraid that somehow they’ll never measure up. They tell a story; Kay needed to whip heavy cream to go with her cherry pies. And all Dorothy had in the kitchen was the egg beater retrieved from the farm a few years earlier. This beater had seen better days in the eight decades since its creation. But that didn't deter Aunt Kay, who cranked away on the ancient egg beater, while rust flew off into the thickening cream. She spooned the rust out with a spoon and served the cream alongside that get-together's pie.

And I remember Aunt Elaine’s Hungarian Chicken. Which really isn’t Hungarian, but was likely only called that because of the large amounts of sour cream and paprika that are added to the sauce in which the chicken bakes. But oh, how I loved that chicken. It was one of my favorite childhood dishes, and no one could or can make it like Elaine.

I remember Thelma liked tea. The tea was always served in Dorothy’s (“Doro’s”) white china edged-in-gold cups and saucers. Gatherings were always at Doro’s house. The men talked. Sat and talked. The women cooked in the kitchen. 

My dad, Joe, never cooked, except at Christmas time. Then, he baked. Baked pfeffernusse and speculaas and lebkuchen. Perhaps it was one of the few things he looked back on fondly that he had inherited from his mother, Lenora. Those goodies were made in November, and sat in patterned tins in the freezers until December. Then they were broken out and nibbled on up through New Year’s Day. I was one of the few who liked the spicy lebkuchen, full of candied fruit and nuts and glazed with blackberry brandy. They were sweet and exotic.

His mother Lenora cooked, but all I know about her are the fancy holiday treats.

One of my favorite photos of Joe’s dad, Howard, portrays a strong, aging man standing outdoors, a huge grin on his face that spreads to his eyes, holding a can of Pepsi in one hand and a box of Cheez-Its in the other. That is Grandpa. He grew up in a farming family. Fruit farmers. Peaches mostly. Or at least, that’s what I remember from the stories. And Howard hated something about it so much that he never ate fruit as an adult. He was a meat and potatoes man.

His second wife, Ruth, made the kids’ favorite chocolate chip cookies. It was the recipe from the Tollhouse bags, with chopped pecans. She always made a batch before coming to visit and brought them in a gallon Ziploc bag in her suitcase. That would be the first thing we asked for after giving them welcoming hugs. I remember her beef pot roasts, served with potatoes and carrots. And Howard would wait at the table until she brought it in, all on a platter. 

I grew up with these stories and people. I grew up amidst family holidays and special dishes, goodies, and the hands that made them. Now the people I loved are dying, have died, or live far away, and I have no large circles to share my food traditions with. So I'm making my own, with my husband, our children, and our friends. And I’m learning to cook in my own way–seasonally, with fresh, local ingredients, and with a learning eye. But when someone asks me to describe home, my eyes roll back in my head, my lids close, and my salivary glands start churning their charm. I am much shorter, walking up to a laden table, spoon and stubby fingers ready to pick at the roast, the broccoli and cheesesauce, the shortbread cookies, the sweet potato casserole (with coconut...heavens, Mom, please make that again....), and then, in a vulnerable, innocent, child-fastasylike way, I am HOME.