Of Recipes and Women, Family and Food

Me and TC (from the inside cover of "Favourite Recipes"). Illustration by Claire Robertson.

Me and TC (from the inside cover of “Favourite Recipes”). Illustration by Claire Robertson.

Of the many wonderful and much-appreciated gifts that I received at my recent bridal shower, I think one of my favourites is a book of recipes collected by my soon-to-be mother in law. She canvassed family and friends from both my side and TC’s to compile the fairly hefty tome, which bears the title “Favourite Recipes”. It is now on my kitchen shelf (I had to do some readjusting to make room) with a little blue notebook which is, in many ways, its predecessor.

When I graduated from high school my mom asked me which recipes from home I’d like to know how to make once I lived on my own. She bought a thick spiral-bound journal and then sat in the living room and copied out each recipe in her best elementary teacher printing (which, you can probably imagine, is painstakingly neat). Generally speaking, it took me about three or four years to learn to make any of these recipes passably (except lasagne and bolognese; those I was fairly adept at somehow but was too lazy to make) and a few more years on top of that to really master. I had even made my mom write out instructions for dishes she had never needed a recipe for (like hash brown potatoes). Ten years later, I still have not made every dish in my “little blue notebook”, but I now trust I have the competence, if not always the time, to do it.

Where the little blue notebook was a gift from my mother of my favourite recipes, my bridal shower recipe binder has continued to build on the foundation my mother laid out–the best recipes are not necessarily the fancy ones endorsed by celebrity chefs that necessitate owning a pestle and mortar, or the photogenic delights of Pinterest (that necessitate being a kept woman who spends all her time making angels out of marzipan or some such). The best recipes are the ones that are tried and true, the favourite meals and desserts that have been repeatedly successful over the years, the kind of food you can make with love for the people you love without needing to be a Gordon Ramsay or a Martha Stewart. Sure, some of the recipes in my new binder are from magazines and many, I’m sure, are originally from cookbooks. The point is not that the women (and men–hi Dad!) who contributed to this gift are culinary geniuses, the point is that these recipes are recommended because they work.

Flipping through my binder, I am beginning to realize that my favourite recipes as copied by my mom were just the beginning–just the foods I could think to ask for at the time, with the tastes and abilities of my 18-year-old self. I’d never really thought I could one day be making Grandma’s pirags, or my dad’s cabbage rolls. I hadn’t placed myself in the lineage of people cooking for their families. And now I have, through the contributions of loved ones from my side and my fiancé’s.

And it’s not just the women who contributed to the recipe binder that have become part of my cooking story. Many of the recipes have titles like “Fern’s Mandarin Orange Salad” or “Jackie’s Honey Chicken” (when the name of the contributor was not Fern or Jackie). Recipes have been passed from parent to child, friend to friend, and neighbour to neighbour. Even some of the recipes that came from cookbooks I am sure came from community and school cookbooks (I remember my family having a few of those) which are themselves collections of recommendations and favourites being passed from one member of a community to another. There is no way to know for sure where most of them really came from and in that way they belong to everyone.

Recipes in a purchased cookbook are great but they’re just lists of ingredients and instructions. Even with the fancy photographs in today’s cookbooks (which I actually don’t like because they seem fake), the recipes have no connection or relevance to me. They’re nothing until they’re made. What makes the recipes in both the little blue notebook that my mother gave me ten years ago and the recipes in the bridal shower binder collected by my future mother-in-law this spring so special is that they have been made, time and time again. They’ve been made for as long as I’ve been alive, by people who love me and wish the best for me. Some recipes are relatively new. Some are older than my grandmother. As I use them I begin to pencil in changes here and there, depending on what works for me, knowing full well my parents always did the same. And so it goes.

To all the women in my life and the ones who came before them, Happy Mother’s Day. May your culinary efforts always be appreciated and your children always do the dishes without complaint.

2 thoughts on “Of Recipes and Women, Family and Food

  1. My grandmother gave me one such notebook when I turned 20. I couldn’t even begin to imagine how many hours she spent copying each recipe down with her arthritic hand.

    They truly are tried and true dishes and I cherish them dearly.

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