Day Two: Creating this cookbook

What started as a simple* project to preserve memories for my cousin, and to keep my work, has turned into so many questions, and a few regrets.

The book I chose to begin working from and transcribing at first looked like a messy compilation of jottings and scribbles and recipes my great grandma collected from friends and acquaintances. As I thumb through it, it looks more like a mother-daughter collaboration between her and my grandma. Grams has imposed some organizational structure on it — her lines are sharp and crisp and clear, written in her elegant, sloping script –multiple cookie recipes per page, and more cookies on the facing page, and more cookies after that. Great grandma fills in the gaps with stroganoffs and dumplings and shortcakes.

I doubt they would’ve undertaken it, but for a fleeting moment I thought maybe they toyed with the idea of putting together their own cookbook. Maybe they shared and swapped the book over the course of years.

Why wouldn’t she have ever told me about it? Shown it to me? Talked about it?

Maybe it was a vestige of a life she left far, far behind. One it was too much to go back to.

I have so many questions.


The great cookbook make

So I’ve undertaken this project.

After my grandma died, when we were dividing up her possessions and cleaning out her house, I asked for the recipe box. My cousin D let it go with one provision: I would make a book or somehow record the recipes and send it to him.

I agreed, and nearly a year and a half later finally feel like I’m in the mental space to be able to begin this project. I decided to include my great grandma’s recipes, too, and I have three books of hand-written, sometimes revised, jotted cookery notes. She didn’t fill all the internal pages of one book, for instance, but the front cover and title page are covered in recipes from chicken wings to pancakes to fish batter to “Drink” and “Punch. A photocopied recipe from her “beauty operator” was tucked into the cover, too.

I laughed at the recipe for “Pop Overs (good” because no one in my family has replicated her pop overs, nor has anyone even tried them since probably the mid-90s.

I began to cry at the recipe for oyster crackers, tucked under the headline “snacks” and snuggled into the whitespace next to “Stay in Bed Stew” from a Lucille K. My great grandma and grandma both made seasoned oyster crackers and I ate them faster than they could make them when I was a kid. My grandma would send bags of them to be in care packages during college. One set of the dishtowels I have is permanently stained with vegetable oil because a gallon bag of oyster crackers leaked in the shipment containing both. I still remember the apartment I lived in when she sent that box, and calling to tell her I’d gotten it and the bag had leaked.

So, yeah, it’s safe to say I’m not ready for this yet. But maybe it’s a good thing. Great grandma repressed and tucked things away, but grandma kept everything and tried to talk about everything. I need to open these books, and smell my grandmas again, and remember what their handwriting looks like — how different their lettering and spelling was from each other’s. One who was barely allowed to finish junior high school and the other, college-educated.

This is also a record of our culture, in some ways. I am descended from midwestern farmers and “townsfolk” and these recipes are a combination both of the food my great-grandma was raised making for the farm and dishes she and my grandma were given by other women. They faithfully wrote down the names of the women from whom they got the recipes, too, and for every aunt I recognize there are four more neighbors or ladies from church I’ve never heard of.

I need to test some of these recipes, eat the snacks and food they made with love and obligation.

My plan is to record some of this undertaking here. I can’t guarantee it’ll be step-by-step or thorough, but I can’t imagine there won’t be feelings or thoughts I’ll need to put somewhere, so — I hope you’re ready, I guess.

Maybe this is my final frontier with this grief. Doubtful, but maybe.


How Lucky We Are

I think a lot about how lucky I’ve been. My mother was a teenager in shock and recovering from her father’s suicide when I was born. My dad wasn’t around. There was no money when I was growing up. I had my grandma, I had her best friend, I had my best friends and their parents.

The daycare I went to for awhile was run by a woman who used her charges as free labor. Once a week, we cleaned her apartment. I learned to vacuum and wash dishes there.

My mother didn’t believe me until one day she happened to come early to pick me up, and there we were, scrubbing and tidying away. I never went back.

The summer before I turned 10, my mom met a man who left his wife and three kids for the two of us and proceeded to mosey us on across the country, away from everyone we knew, to somewhere no one knew us from Adam. There was still no money.

What’s worse, there were so many more rules, and a ton of oversight. Then there was another baby, and even less money. I made a few friends. Their parents became watched over me to the extent they could. But I also gained two lovely uncles with whom I’ve cultivated an enduring relationship through the years. They have been my biggest champions, and have been pillars in my life and my education.

School was my refuge. I was good at it, and I was in advanced classes as soon as they had some in which to put me. Sixth grade was the worst year, because my teachers placed a higher degree of importance on their legacy students than on the new kid who wore the same clothes to school every day, but seventh grade was better and in eighth I found teachers who gave a damn.

Teachers who went out of their way to protect me from my stepdad and to provide options where they could, for instance. Or coworkers of my stepdad’s, who gave me babysitting jobs and paid pretty well.

My best friends’ parents were crucial during this time; I’ve mentioned that before. They fed me, sheltered me, parented me, and sometimes clothed me. They picked me up from practices and school activities, and ferried me around. They worried about my whereabouts, and bought foods that I liked to eat.

When I was in college, my mother’s ex-boyfriend sent money every birthday and Christmas. A professor asked if I’d considered grad school, effectively the first time I’d ever even been in the same headspace as the idea.

This list could go on, and I know I’m leaving people off. I was talking with my uncles this evening, and in relaying some drama from their side of the family, it occurred to me how lucky I was. Yeah, things were bad for awhile, and I had to grow up quickly and learn to survive. Yes, this has in some ways made me kind of hard. Cold. But there was always someone around who loved me, who cared about where I was and whether I was eating and whether the clothes I had were warm enough. To have had that in the face of everything, when at any time things could have taken another turn, I have been so completely lucky.

And I am ever awestruck, and thankful.