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cooking with Dorothy…

Dorothy's Revere wareMy mother was a very good cook. She could follow a recipe, but she could also use a recipe, or the ingredients on hand, as inspiration to create something entirely her own. Her cooking wasn’t fancy, but flavorful and varied, and usually pretty healthful as well. Every meal included a vegetable and many of my friends saw their first asparagus or artichoke on their dinner plate at our house.

But she never taught me to cook. She was not a good teacher because teaching needs to be about the student, and she could not yield that space or focus. Of course I was expected to be present for part of the time as she prepared dinner almost every single evening, so I also have myself to blame for not learning her tricks. But mine was a thankless job — a task in which I had fetch-and-carry roles but no active creativity or reward.

There was an illusion of coziness, of girlfriends, that she occasionally liked to promote, but that was far from our reality, in which I was to stay out of the way, listen, complete my assignments and be invisible. Like art, cooking was part of her personal expression; whether she was making pot roast or a painting, my contributions were neither invited nor encouraged.

When I left home, my first forays into cooking were attempts to capture the taste of things she had made. Even now, though I’m drawn to flavors a little more spicy, a little more complex, I use some of her recipes and my palate has her food as a reference point. Though I can “taste” a recipe when I see it on the page, I don’t have Dorothy’s sensibility for random combinations of ingredients.

Yet, somehow, I absorbed more than I give either of us credit for. I love food. I love to cook. And each time I use one of her pans, I think of her, even as some part of me is back there, in that kitchen, her kitchen, waiting, silent, invisible.

RECEIPTS…

RECEIPTS: my mother's recipe boxMy mother, who was a superb cook and always thin, kept her recipes in a wooden box with RECEIPTS painted on the front. It took me many years to disentangle the two words.

In my parents’ house, the box lived alongside cookbooks and a radio on a shelf above the kitchen table where Dorothy would frequently study recipes from a sprawl of books and cards.

I open the box. It is crammed full with perhaps 250 three-by-five cards, their top edges furred and nicked from handling and more ivory than white. A few printed dividers are jammed together in the very back — Beverages, Soups, Biscuits-Bread — and one handwritten — Candy. But otherwise the cards are packed together without logic or distinction, cocoa roll followed by eggplant followed by pizza followed by lemon pie.

Most are in Dorothy’s loose, untidy handwriting, in black or blue or green fountain pen, or ball point, or pencil. But a few are typed (some with more than one recipe on a card) and a number clipped from magazines or newspapers, no longer stuck where yellowed scotch tape is little more than a stain. Perhaps a quarter of them are written in my grandmother’s similar but neater hand. One is torn from what must have been a longer letter. Another is written in unfamiliar script on a full sheet of paper headed with the words, “Geese must be fat & froze.” On some, the handwriting becomes smaller and smaller to fit all the instructions on one card. A recipe for Gumbo Creole is carefully typed on a sheet of paper. At the bottom of the recipe is typed, Love. There’s a comma after the word, but no signature.

Some of the recipes credit a source — Carmie, Selma, Goldine, Shirley, Ruth, Evelyn, Sally, Bobbie E., Fran, Irma — names that roll over me like an echo. One says Mama, which must refer to my great-grandmother. Some have notes — delish!, (never fails), (Quick), not sweet enuf add more sugar!, rich, make double — and a few don’t even have titles; you’d have to imagine, or make, the recipe to figure it out. Penciled math calculates multiples or divisions of quantities.

But what I love is their scars: splashes and smudges, scratch-outs and amendments. Cup rings. Oil stains. Rips and wrinkles. Torn corners. Places where a favorite recipe has been tried and tweaked and adjusted again and again, missing ingredients or instructions added, bad ideas lined through. Cards on which the writing has blurred and run and faded, the card slid back into the box for another meal.

Nearly a century of kitchen intelligence noted, shared, preserved. I suppose they are receipts, after all.

salivations…

cooked turkeyMy mother was a good cook. She loved recipes, which she read like salacious novels, but understood ingredients and was creative with them to positive effect.

A couple of times a year, Thanksgiving or otherwise, she would cook a turkey, which, except for the one that memorably fell on the kitchen floor on the way to the table, would be handsome as well as delicious: crisp and golden on the outside and juicy and tender on the inside, just the way a cooked turkey should be.

She packed the bird with her homemade stuffing, which was later mounded into a bowl as part of the feast, but it was her stuffing balls that incited riots. Finding, always, as if by accident, that she had made more than the turkey would hold, she would shape this ‘extra’ stuffing into tennis-ball-size globes, which she then placed in the pan beneath the turkey in its rack. There, for three or four or five hours, they would be extravagantly marinated in turkey drippings until they achieved a dark, chewy crust.

These little pucks of fat-drenched stuffing would vanish as fast as they were served — delectable, dangerous, divine.

Gobble gobble, indeed!
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turkey photo

how to write a recipe, part 1…