We’re invited to an annual Easter dinner at our friends’ home later today, and I know the table will be laden with traditional Easter fare—food I’ve long since abandoned in favor of fresh vegetables, fish and occasional poultry. And as my mother did so many years ago, I’ll be preparing an accompaniment for the meal, just as she and my aunts did every Easter, year after year. Although I don’t eat ham any longer, the mere smell of it baking will trigger memories from Easter celebrations past.
The Bray family, roughly sixty aunts, uncles and cousins, celebrated Easter together every year, and always in the same way. We met at an aunt and uncle’s house in Hornbrook, just a few miles south of the Oregon border after the church services we all attended. As everyone arrived, the kitchen counter was soon crowded with vegetable casseroles, jellied salads, desserts, scalloped potatoes and baked hams with a pineapple and brown sugar glaze. Easter was my father’s favorite holiday, as eagerly anticipated as Christmas because of the annual egg hunt, which followed the meal. Each family contributed three or four dozen colored eggs to be hidden by three of the adults in the hillsides near our uncle’s ranch. They organized the hunt into an adult section and a youth section, and we excitedly combed the grasses and tree branches to find as many as we could to fill our baskets. There were prizes of course for those with the most eggs, an assortment of solid chocolate bunnies, large for the adults and smaller for the children. But no one went home without some chocolate and at least two or three dozen colored eggs, the only downside being the boiled eggs that kept appearing in my lunchbox days afterward.
Easter is a quieter day for us now; the excitement belongs to the children. We’ve chatted with our grandchildren on Skype this morning and “oooohed” and “aaaahed” over the colored eggs and chocolate bunnies they discovered in their baskets. They will each share an Easter dinner with family or friends later in the day, and will, as I am, contribute to the festivities with a favorite dish, one possibly remembered from childhood from recipes passed from mothers to daughters’ generation after generation.
Take some flour. Oh, I don’t know,
like two-three cups, and you cut
in the butter. Now some women
they make it with shortening,
but I say butter, even though
that means you had to have fish, see?
You cut up some apples. Not those
stupid sweet ones. Apples for the cake,
they have to have some bite, you know?
A little sour in the sweet, like love.
You slice them into little moons.
(From: “My Mother Gives Me her Recipe,” by Marge Piercy, Colors Passing Through Us, 2004).
But back to our Easter invitation for this afternoon… I decided to make some spoon bread to contribute, a dish I used to serve with ham decades ago. I no longer have a recipe for it and had to send an email cry for help to my friend Sarah in hopes she had it. Sarah and I were young mothers and pre-school teachers together in Nova Scotia many years ago. Her Indiana heritage showed up in the delicious meals she prepared—ones that reminded me of my mother-in-law’s cooking, also an Indiana native. Whether the spoon bread recipe was originally Sarah’s or my mother-in-law’s, I no longer remember, but although Sarah no longer eats these calorie and carbohydrate laded dishes either, she found her recipe and emailed back to me.
The recipe hearkens back to a time of practical, easy meal preparation when main dishes were often served as casseroles. High in fat, calories and carbohydrates, the recipes often included things like a muffin mix (like the spoon bread I’ll make today) or a can of Campbell’s mushroom soup as a common ingredient. It’s a far cry from the kind of cooking I do now, but the old recipes trigger a multitude of memories of holidays past, of family and friends, of who I was then.
It’s true for all of us. Foods lovingly prepared and served at family celebrations triggers memory; stories are rediscovered as we take that first bite of a dish we remember from our childhood or those early years of marriage, when we tried to duplicate a favorite dish from our mother’s recipes. I still think of my grandmother Lola every time I sneak in for an oatmeal-raisin cookie from Starbucks, remembering the smell of freshly baked cookies waiting with a glass of milk in her kitchen every day after kindergarten class ended.
“Recipes can help bridge generations, reveal unexpected characteristics of a culture, or simply fill an afternoon.” These words from the introduction to a writing prompt I saved from The Time is Now newsletter published monthly by Poets & Writers’ Magazine. Food enlivens our senses, so it’s little wonder that a well-loved meal can stimulates so many memories. I sometimes use recipes as writing prompts in my workshops, inviting the participants to recall one from their youth, and as they do, continue writing the stories ignited by the food remembered.
This week, think about food and the recipes that have been a part of your family traditions. Or alternatively, write about the first time you tried to follow a recipe, one familiar or new to you. Write about the memory of a meal, of life around the dinner table, of the smells and objects in a grandmother’s kitchen. Sometimes, even food we love can become unpleasant to us later in life because of the associations we have with it. Begin writing whatever you can remember of a recipe from an earlier time in your life. As memories emerge, keep writing. There may be a story or a poem waiting to be found.
In the yellow kitchen her pink hands
play with creamy dough. Squares of sun frame
things that shine; spoons, cups, hair…
She boils water, opens wine, puts vegetable in pots.
Lights click. Smells blossom.
Everything feels suddenly invited.
(From “Pasta,” by Kate Scott, Stitches, 2003)
As for me, I’m heading to the kitchen right now to don my apron and hope that the spoon bread I remembered will be the spoon bread I take to our friends’ holiday dinner!