Every autumn I find myself facing the same problem: I am completely lost about what to cook for the humans that call my house “home.” I have put all my recipes on a biweekly rotation with the occasional new meal tossed in just to keep my family on their toes. My curveball is usually met with displeasure, so in general I try to stick to the basics.
However, about the time that the leaves begin to change, so do my feelings towards my meal plans. This year proved to be a bit more daunting because I feel like I have spent the last six months living in my kitchen. Summer consumed every bit of my energy and early September saw me leaning into more processed foods.
After a couple weeks it hits me: I must back away from the boxed meals and chop a vegetable. It’s time I take to the cookbooks.
Searching for Something New
The hardback cookbooks in my kitchen sadly show little signs of use. I gather all my favorites and head to the floor of my office to sit in peace as I wait for inspiration to strike.
I begin to search for new and exciting dishes to add to our rotation. The beautiful pictures have done their job and now all I want is to create. I want to measure, sift, and bake. I want to mix and blend. I want to crack eggs into a cast iron skillet and listen to the sizzle, and then serve it up with a sprinkle of something green on top. This is when the thought of eggs distracts me from the task at hand. Not so much the thought of eggs themselves, but the memories of all the breakfasts I’ve consumed throughout my life.
The Recipe Box
Suddenly, I am on my feet and in search of the old recipe box. I need my grandmother’s biscuit recipe. Her biscuits, no matter who made them, served as the signal that breakfast would be more than just a meal, but rather an event.
As a child, I would wander into her kitchen and find her mixing the buttermilk with the flour. The simple act of watching her fold the flour into the milk equally captivated and comforted me. The meal would encourage us to take our time and chat for a while. The smell of her freshly baked biscuits sent an invitation to gather around the dinner table. Butter and homemade pear preserves replaced hurried schedules, as we all sat and leisurely enjoyed our time together.
I find the old recipe box hidden behind the cookie jar in my china cabinet. The box is small and is in the shape of a house painted cornflower blue with delicate tulips stenciled on the detachable roof. Forgetting about the pages of the perfectly orchestrated meals that sparked my inspiration, I put all the newer cookbooks away and pull out the old recipes.
The papers are yellowed and marked with water stains with content ranging from the simplest of hard-boiled eggs to the ever-sophisticated boeuf bourguignon. The small house holds written instructions to make jello molds, gingerbread cookies, and pot roasts that have “Never fail” scrawled across the top.
I note that the handwriting on the cards is not identical. Different family members have contributed to this box. I recognize my mother’s handwriting and its unmistakable, slanted script on most of the cards. Temporarily forgetting about the biscuits, I pull out some of my favorites: peanut butter cookies, homemade pizza dough and runzas.
A Few of My Favorites
Peanut butter cookies landed on the list of “things that didn’t make me violently ill” during the early weeks with my first pregnancy. My mother knew this and made me a double batch early on. I can still see how she dipped the tip of the fork into water and gently pressed it into the raw cookie dough to make the indentation on top. She still makes them each time I return for a visit.
Growing up homemade pizza marked any birthday or special occasion at my house. Yeast and warm water mix and create a unique smell and I always begged to do the mixing. I loved to watch the flour being dusted on the counter as the ball of risen dough was rolled out into the perfect circle.
As for runzas, these were a household staple. The recipe had been gifted by a neighbor who received it from her mother. European women would make these hot sandwiches and stuff them with ground beef, onion, cabbage, and cheese.
They would send them with their husbands to eat while they worked the fields. My mother used her pizza dough recipe and made these in large quantities. Midwest winter days would frequently see a pot of vegetable soup on the stove and a dozen of these sandwiches in the oven.
Forgoing the Fresh
Back in my office, I am still sitting in the middle of the pile of cards. In the box, I notice that recipes are written on just about anything: scraps of paper, the backs of church bulletins, and torn pieces from a telephone book.
It makes me think that most of these recipes had been passed on after church services or over long phone conversations. I even discover a letter dated 1975 with the ingredients for no-bake cookies scribbled right in the middle.
I realize that I no longer want the new and inspirational. I desire the memorable. I want my family to savor the same flavors I did growing up. If I am being honest, I wish for them to have the same feelings and memories that accompanied each of these meals.
This small cornflower blue house contains generations of traditions. These yellowed, water-stained cards and scraps of paper with scrawled recipes on them contain the makings of meals that made us. They play a role in the feelings we relished each time we met around the table. They are what we request every time we return home and what we attempt to recreate each holiday. Each list of simple ingredients is a direct link to time spent together.
Choosing three passed down recipes to recreate this week, I decide to forgo the fresh for the familiar. I will slow down long enough to roll out the dough and mix the buttermilk with the flour. I will sift and blend and then when I am finished, I will invite others to gather around the table and chat for a while.