PRESERVING TASTE MEMORIES
The cinnamon scent of my mother's apple turnovers, the incendiary punch of a mentor's lamb keema, the silky texture of my lost friend's Russian Cream; all help to define my memory of those who made them. Therefore, I was touched to learn, several years ago, of the Thai tradition of "cremation volumes." These are booklets or pamphlets that are handed out at funeral ceremonies to honor the deceased. They frequently contain the honored one's recipes, demonstrating a realization that it is easier to capture the presence of those who have gone while cooking and eating their specialties. A local antique store's window display recently reconfirmed that recipes can be beloved memories. There, a collection of recipe cards for date bars, Daisy Cake and sugar cookies, written in Spencerian script, were lovingly matted and enshrined in a 1940s, darkly varnished frame.
Collections of recipes preserve family histories. I was fortunate to be the inheritor of many of my mother's and aunts' recipe collections. Envelopes and booklets of hand-written recipes from my mother and several of her sisters chronicle their lives. They were sometimes written on the backs of envelopes from the frequent letter correspondence that they all enjoyed, or even on the backs of the letters themselves. Postmarks and addresses document when and where their hunger occurred. One sister's collection speaks to her fascination with Jello and molded salads. Nonetheless, tucked among the clippings and jottings were her recipes for homemade doughnuts, both cake and raised, as well as cinnamon rolls.
Many of the recipes from my mother's sisters are desserts and baked goods. Midwestern Finnish households have had a tradition of coffee and baked goods when others come "visiting." Earlier, the "coffee table" was a major form of social entertainment and communication in rural communities. Homemade baked goods were always available for unexpected guests and were not an obligation, but a welcomed opportunity to share expertise and hospitality. Favorite recipes were collected and traded assiduously.
Many family recipes were not written down because daughters learned to cook them by practice, not by written formula. If, perchance, the daughter was enchanted by prepared mixes, then the recipes were not learned and remembered. Sons of the family rarely learned to cook so their mother-in-laws' traditions were those of the family if tradition was kept at all. Gathering these recipes is therefore problematic. However, extrapolation from my aunts' and mother's collections of church-published cookbooks, in conjunction with discussions of remembered dinners with cousins, occasionally bring results.
As with most extended families, the various factions of mine have mutated into a grand diversity of orthodox and eccentric philosophical, political, and social arrangements. There is unity, however, when we come together over the table and remember the tastes of our childhoods: monumental potlucks at lakeside family reunions in Minnesota; strawberry jam and wild blueberry pie from one aunt; pot roast, pasties, pickles, homemade cheese, or flatbread by others. Bonded through our appetites, a commonality is discovered. Thus we honor our family and remember these mementos of our past by preserving the dishes that nurture us.
© Elissa Rubin-Mahon 2004