For me, cooking is not just a nurturing thing. True, I love to gather people around my table and feed them – a skill inherited from my mother that is deeply embedded in my DNA. But meal prep is more than a biological urge – it’s a connection to the past.
Certain kitchen tools and cookbooks are like magical objects that transport me to a time, a place, a person. The kitchen is where I commune with my late mother, taking out the good china she used to entertain literally thousands of dinner guests, or crushing garlic with the press she bought during the Nixon administration. It’s where a little red saucepan can remind me of a long lost neighbor who bequeathed it to me when he moved on. It’s where an oval-shaped serving dish conjures childhood dinners gathered round a similarly shaped table.
There are my mother’s cookbooks, and her disorganized jumble of recipes. Notes jotted in the margins or on the back of envelopes. Recipe cards and newspaper clippings for dishes that made the cut – like chocolate mousse meringue cake – and those that did not (fried ice-cream balls).
There’s an expression in Armenian – shanor ah galyem (apologies to real Armenian speakers) that translates: I kiss your fingers. It is used to compliment the chef after a delicious meal. Let’s just say that there was a lot of finger-kissing in my youth. Starting with my maternal grandmother, whose peanut-butter filled katah (an Armenian yeast bread) and kourabia (shortbread) had no rival. She passed away 40 years ago, and I still remember the way those cookies melted in my mouth. To this day, I’ve never found their equal.
Sadly, that is one of the recipes that got away. The yellowing paper with her faintly arthritic handwriting and quaintly approximate measurements has vanished. As the keeper of the ancestral recipe archive, I feel like I’ve let my people down. But I have not given up hope. Perhaps that family heirloom will find its way back home one day, as others have done in the past. More than once a recipe that my mother had shared and then lost found its way back into the family. It’s the recipe boomerang effect. Share them generously, and they come back to you.
These recipes are a part of our family narrative. Joyce Purnick said it best in her New York Times article this week. “I have not and never will clean out, digitize or otherwise impose order on my recipe files, because each flaking newspaper cutting is part of my story. I look at a recipe and memories come flooding back.” Thank you, Joyce. We are kindred spirits. In the kitchen, at least.
And while Purnick speaks of her personal connections between recipes and memories, she recognizes the power of a seemingly humdrum kitchen tool to spark this flame. Citing a friend who was reluctant to streamline her extensive collection of ramekins, Purnick writes: “She was not obsessed with ramekins. She was obsessed with the memories attached to each one.”
So, it’s not just me. As I was reminded the last time my favorite cooking buddy was in my kitchen. I reached for a faded pink CorningWare bowl and my friend smiled in recognition. “That came from your mother’s kitchen, didn’t it,” she said. “I have one just like it. Use it all the time.” Memories of Mom.
And just last weekend, while visiting my brother, I reached for a spoon. A relic from our childhood kitchen. We are family, the little spoon said, as I cradled it in my hand.