- Roses were her favorite flowers -
Some of you know that I’ve been carrying a weight the past few months, a load that a lot of you out there bear as well: caring for a sick family member who can no longer care for himself. Then a few weeks into that difficult situation, my grandmother died. She had been drifting outwards for several years now so it wasn’t a surprise, but given everything else that has going on, it certainly was a shock. There are affairs of her estate to tend to, and a service, and a myriad mishmash of family members in varying degrees of resentment, estrangement, alienation, and grief. It’s exhausting to dog-paddle through the turbulent wake of everyone’s combined experience, but since I’m accustomed to operating in crisis conditions, the drama of it all is acutely familiar. That makes the landscape a little easier to navigate.
My grandmother was an incredible baker. It might be completely cliche to say so, but she’s the main reasons I work in food right now. She’s the one that taught me how to bake, and with her mentoring I was operating in the kitchen entirely on my own and above the skill level of the average eight year old.
Being a depressed kid stuck at home without a lot of parental supervision, I got bored pretty quickly. Since baking was the only thing I really knew how to do well at that age, I used to dig up the most complicated recipes I could find in my mother’s worn 70s copy of The Betty Crocker Cookbook and power through them, only rarely finding failure. (To this day I still can’t make divinity, and it irks me more than I’m usually willing to admit.) I made my first pâte à choux at nine years old, but still intimidated by crème anglais – which I didn’t master until I was 12 or so – I filled my eclairs with small scoops of vanilla ice cream and covered them with canned chocolate frosting. Hey, it was the 80s – Duncan Hines rained supreme in those days.
When I was ten or so, I remember watching some god-awful morning show called Mike & Matty, where they shared a restaurant’s most well-known offering: cinnamon rolls made from scratch. The clincher for me was the fact that they added vanilla pudding mix to the dough used to make the rolls. Details are sketchy, but I remember that I had to call long distance to the TV station five or six times until I found someone who could give me the recipe. Being so young, I had no idea that I was given a commercial formula.
I vaguely understood that this was going to be a big undertaking, but by that time the arthritis in my grandmother’s hands and knees kept her from working at the kitchen counter for more than a few minutes at a time. I set to work making the cinnamon rolls myself. After spending what amounted to 8 hours kneading, rolling, and filling the dough, I think I ended up with nearly four-dozen cinnamon rolls, ranging in size from three-inches in diameter to almost six-inches across. I was annoyed by the inconsistent sizes, but hey, you try rolling out an evenly measured 5-foot square sheet of dough with the short arms of a ten year old!
I don’t have that recipe anymore. My grandmother slid the stained sheet of looseleaf paper into her recipe collection for safe keeping.
People keep talking about my grandmother’s estate, but my focus is elsewhere. Somewhere out there is a small, white, metal box of my grandmother’s recipes: instructions for the chocolate caramels bars she used to make for me and my brother; striped Neapolitan cookies that she loved to share during the holidays; an old newspaper clipping for Jimmy Carter’s strawberry cake that she adored for its pink color; and that crazy commercial recipe for the cinnamon rolls that challenged me like nothing else I’d ever made at the time. I’d like to gather all of these recipes into a nice little book and make copies for anyone who wants to remember my grandmother through the activity that she loved more than almost any other: sharing food with those she loved. But most of all I just want to make a lot of these recipes again, to remember what it was like to sit with her at that old formica kitchen table in her early 50s track home, blowing bubbles in a glass of milk and eating something so delicious that it blew my little mind and changed it forever.
My grandma’s recipes are out there somewhere, but they were handed off to someone else once she moved for living assistance. I’m beginning to doubt I’ll ever see them again. I’ve asked my great aunts about the box and gotten only vague responses that seem to indicate that my grandma’s little clippings and 4×6 cards have been mixed into someone else’s collection, and that they’re not really interested in fishing them out. The thought of these dishes being out of my hands forever breaks my heart – the thought that no one will ever try another one of her cookies and remember exactly where that recipe came from, how it was born of the world’s most loving and generous woman and handed down from grandmother to granddaughter nearly 40 years after the first time they sat at the table and sifted flour together. With everything else that’s going on, it’s really too much to bear.
Who cares about the estate when her strongest, most poignant memories are brushed aside?
There’s no recipe today. It felt wrong to post one here, given I don’t have any of hers.