Old Recipes, Old Friends
I first met Dorothy, the impish, fiercely independent mother of our Vermont neighbor, when she came up to me after church and declared, "Your stairs are two steps too long." It is the custom in Vermont to inspect a new house under construction when the owners are away-- the neighbors drop by for a clandestine tour. It appeared that Dorothy had taken the measure of our new farmhouse and couldn't wait to speak her piece. Two years after her passing, I still remember her words every time I run upstairs. She was right. The stairs are too long-- by exactly two steps.
Dorothy was best known in our household for her cream pie. Every Thanksgiving, she would sneak into her daughter's kitchen and whip up her secret recipe-- just cream and sugar and pie crust. She cooked it for several hours at a very low temperature until the cream set; and of course, Dorothy's pie always set perfectly. When I asked for the recipe, she lit up like a schoolgirl and made me guess at the oven temperature, the ratio of ingredients, the possibility of an egg, the baking time. With each formula I ventured, she laughed so hard that her slight frame shook and tears ran down her cheeks. When she died, her secret died with her. Her daughter, Jean, claims that she has Dorothy's recipe, but I wonder. Some years her pie sets and some years it doesn't. I'd bet the last two steps of my staircase that the recipe isn't complete-- like a true Vermonter, Dorothy knew how to keep a secret.
A lot of us in the food world, myself included, praise the virtues of cooking without recipes. Cooking according to what someone else has written feels like an admission of apprenticeship. But lately I've begun to re-think my feelings about this. Marion Cunningham, a well-known cookbook author, recently said to me, "You know, cooking shared recipes is like visiting old friends." In many Muslim countries, it is thought that the taking of a person's photograph is akin to stealing their soul. Like a tourist's snapshot, a shared recipe may be a kind of loss, but it's also a special gift.
Another Vermonter, Marie Briggs, was the town baker when I was a kid. In the back room of a house that had no running water (just a hand pump in the sink) and no indoor facilities (plumbing arrived in 1970), on a soot-blackened wood cookstove, she baked country breads, apple pies, and molasses cookies for the local store. After she passed away four years ago, a neighbor, Junior Bentley, gave me some of her recipes. Reading the recipes, I can remember the yeasty kitchen aroma, the taste of molasses and cornmeal in the big slabs of anadama bread, the first bite of warm spice doughnuts. I recall her bright squinty face, and the day she took me aside after I had moved back to town after a twenty-five-year absence and said in her plain-spoken manner, "It's nice to have you back again." I find myself using her recipes more and more as I get older. It isn't just the food I'm making, it's like cooking up a small batch of Marie in the rich dark doughs. The small measures of memory-- her sensible square-heel shoes, oversize black-frame glasses, and the spare, measured pace of both her cooking and conversation-- all come back to me.
Other recipes hold more exotic memories. On vacation in Tobago, my wife and I discovered a one-room shack in a tucked away cove. A foam-green, hand-drawn sign hung above it saying, "Jemma's Seaview Kitchen." Jemma was an enormous swirl of a cook barely contained by her galley-size kitchen. Yet out of that thumbnail of a kitchen came the best red snapper I've ever eaten (served in a ginger sauce) and a two-tiered dessert made from coconut and burnt-sugar gelatins. Jemma freely told me the secrets of her dessert. I've never made it-- there was too much of her in that cooking-- but I think about that recipe a lot, and I count Jemma as a friend for giving it to me.
Malvina Kinard, my first kitchen mentor, a native of Birmingham, Alabama, once told me that sharing recipes is like "sharing flowers from your garden." Many years ago she gave me her recipe for Double Chocolate Cookies, and their fudgy, chewy filling and thin flaky crust are so good that, in her words, eating one is like "dying and going to heaven." She lives far away now, and when we call she says in her luxurious Alabama drawl, "Bless my soul! You just live too far away for an old lady like me. Now what are we going to do about this?" We promised to come and visit, but that was two years ago, and it's a long drive with the kids.
We miss them all. Dorothy. Marie. Jemma. Malvina. But we make their recipes on crisp Saturday afternoons, with the oven warm and the kids helping. It's nice to have old friends stop by for a visit.