The Sacred Recipes
Food is sacred. Food is culture, religion, tradition, civilization. Few rituals don’t involve food in some definition. It might be as simple as a pinch of saffron or a sip of wine. It might be grand meals of celebration. It might be the self-denial of food making the return all that more important. That makes the creation of the food and the recipes involved as holy as any breviary.
Everyone has recipes, even people who think they don’t. It might be cooking instant noodles a few minutes longer than it says on the pack or putting a sprinkle of tabasco sauce on top of instant Mac and Cheese. It’s something wilfully changed by, and therefor important to, the person who is making it.
This holiday season is the first without any of my grandparents living. In truth my grandmother had been gone for quite a while. She would occasionally ask when her brother’s flight squadron was being disbanded so he could come home. He crashed his plane in 1945. In her married years, she was the perfect housewife hostess. After she was widowed she would bring out those skills every possible holiday of the year. When she passed in August of this year I inherited 37 mismatched china tea cups, a 70’s Steinway piano, and a set of cut glass bowls. I’ve been thinking a lot about what she used to put in those bowls.
For her funeral lunch my sister and I decided to make the things she would make for us that we would never make for ourselves. Processed ham sandwiches with margarine and iceberg lettuce on ‘brown’ bread. Imitation king crab salad sandwiches made with miracle whip on white bread. Green Jell-O pineapple “salad” served on a piece of iceberg lettuce which was made every holiday and only my father ever ate. My sister and I had to dig for that recipe. Everyone we found was wrong since my grandmother, who was usually slavish to back of the box recipes, decided to change that one. No whipped cream, no nuts or cherries, extra pineapple and a double batch to fill the large brass Jell-O mold. It’s about the same level as putting the spice pack into the water first so it boils the flavour into the instant noodles but it was hers.
At Christmas those cut-glass bowls were filled with onion dip, seafood dip, and Chex Mix. This year I am hosting Christmas dinner for my in-laws. My sister-in-law and I switch years. I will never be the perfect hostess my grandmother or even sister-in-law was and is. I don’t have matched china and silver, I hate cleaning, and have a heat ring on my dining room table. I do however put out a damn good meal. I can do a lamb roast like you wouldn’t believe and buttermilk biscuits nearly as flaky as a croissant. And this year I feel a need to put those cut-glass bowls to their intended use for the first time in probably 15 years.
I’ve been on the phone with my sister three times today trying to reverse engineer the seafood dip. It involved little canned shrimp, and canned oysters we think. The Chex mix is also proving harder than it should. The official recipe involves making it in the microwave. No. And has bagel chips. Hell no. It’s also really hard to find Chex in New Zealand and you can only get one variety. I’ll manage it somehow. Might have to make a few substitutions, drive out to specialty shops, but I’m going to have oyster dip probably no one will eat and Chex mix without bagel chips sitting on the coffee table when everyone comes over for Christmas.