Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Virtual Reality Recipes

When this week's theme was announced, I cringed. I've never been much of a recipe-hound. Most of my recipes are jammed in a file and stuffed in a cabinet with my cookbooks, of which I only own four. But the more I've thought about it, the more I've realized the power contained in a simple recipe, power to create a place in the mind and heart that spans those human limitations of time and distance.
A familiar recipe--your grandmother's banana bread, or your mother's spaghetti sauce--can hurtle you into a virtual reality of places visited, celebrations enjoyed, friends and loved ones who've moved away. It's no wonder we call certain dishes "comfort foods." By incorporating sight, smell, taste, and sometimes even sound and touch, a recipe generates a living memory better than a photograph, a scrapbook page, or a message scrawled on the back of a postcard from some foreign locale.

As my kids have gotten older, they've started to ask for certain dishes on birthdays or holidays. They usually ask for the most mundane meals -- baked barbecued chicken legs, macaroni and cheese, etc. Those are the foods I've made repeatedly over the years, and for them those meals -- made according to my recipe -- hold that mysterious power of reviving the joys of childhood.

Our recipes will outlive us, sometimes by decades or even centuries. A dear lady now in her 80s shared with me her recipe for penuche. The rich, golden, fudgy became an instant family favorite. Every time I make it (I have to make it every year now) I'm reminded of her. My father's oatmeal raisin cookies, which I've never quite managed to replicate, and the French toast he cooked in an electric skillet on lazy mornings, stir up tender recollections of family breakfasts. And my mother's recipe for bread stuffing, made only on Thanksgiving and Christmas, sends me whirling through a mental slide show of Christmases past.

As we head into the holidays this year, the season of cooking and eating and sharing meals, think about those recipes you enjoy and what they mean to you. Pass those down to your children. My aunt has shared some family recipes with my kids this year that we will treasure. There's something special about taking your great-grandma's recipe for cornbread to a church supper. I never met my great-grandmother, but I can make her cornbread, and think about her and the time in which she lived and loved.

And in this season of economic belt-cinching, if you want to give someone a gift but can't afford something fancy, how about sharing a recipe? Not a wild, crazy one you copied off Martha's website with ingredients you can't pronounce or afford, but something you make that will remind them of you.
On that note ...
Serious question of the day: What's the first recipe from your repertoire that came to mind as you read this post?
Humorous question: If good recipes stir up good memories... what recipe would you like to delete from your memory banks and why? (Mine would be boiled yellow squash. Thanks, Mom.)

Post a comment by 9 pm PST, Oct. 8, to be entered to win an Inkalicious recipe book! Please protect yourself from spammers trolling the internet by providing your email addy in a form like this: name [at] address [dot] com.

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  1. What an apropos topic as I am heading to Food Haven, The Big Easy. My chicken rollovers, oozing with parmesan and garlic sauce, send folks scuttling for recipe cards.

    The food I haven't touched since leaving home? Oven-baked pork chops. Think it'll be a, "Thanks, Mom" day!

    I'll think of y'all this week while I feast on crawfish etouffe, po' boy made N'Awlins style, cream brulee, and my sister-in-law's specialty, Pad Thai!

    Bon Apetit!


  2. Thanks Niki. It's so true. Recipe cards, or recipes scribbled on the back of scrap paper, a newspaper clipping. Those are the things we keep and just going through them is a joy. We recognize the handwriting and sometimes we virtually go back in time to that person's kitchen table.
    Eating together is fellowship, and the memories are treasures we go back to time and again. Great post. Thanks!

    Patti, I have this feeling that when I read WHAT THE BAYOU SAW, I'll be thinking of your foodie pleasures in the background!

  3. One of the most special gifts we ever received was a cookbook put together by my husband's aunt of my husband's grandmother's recipes. Now I myself have never made any of them (I don't cook much LOL!) but my daughter has. In fact, she inherited that cooking gene that somehow got left out of me! That cookbook and those recipes are so special to our family.

    The food I want to forget? Fried okra. Mom never made me eat it again after the first fiasco, thank goodness!

  4. My most memory inducing food? Mom's cream puffs. My mouth waters just thinking about them. The food I wish I could forget? Johnny Marzetti. I have developed a passionate loathing of the stuff.

  5. The first thing that came to my mind was Grandma’s Sugar cookies – great memories of baking them with her.
    Humorous: Invited for supper at a Pastor’s home. I went in to help the wife. She pulled out a whole octopus. My youngest son followed me in the kitchen and when he saw it, he said, very emphatically, Mom, I am not going to eat that! She cut it up and make octopus curry. We had that for supper. Since my older kids went not with us, she later made some more and brought it over for them, plus the recipe! Needless to say, we have never made it.
    mrstgr at msn dot com

  6. Oh wow, I love the octopus story, Theresa! To think I normally just serve chicken to guests. Guess I'd better step it up a notch.

    The idea of recipes outliving us immediately brought to mind a recipe of my great grandma's. It's for Scripture Cake -- every ingredient has an accompanying Scripture. You even beat the batter like King Solomon suggests disciplining children. Yup. I've never made it because it looks a bit like fruitcake, which I'm not into. But it's a treasured piece of parchment in my recipe file.

    In her latter years, my grandma served me field corn on the cob. I can still feel that in my teeth.

  7. First recipe to come to mind in my repetoire? That presumes I have a repetoire! I guess Bobotie or Lamb Curry. I picked up both those recipes up when I lived in South Africa. They are both among the first meals I learned to make on my own, and are both family favourites.

    I could completely do without carmelized carrots or vegetables with any kind of sauce. I'm not a big fan of cooked carrots, but adding butter and brown sugar just makes them overwhelmingly yucky to me. I know! Carrots. Good. Butter. Good. Brown sugar. Good. All together. Yuck!

    And I didn't know I liked broccoli, brussel sprouts, or cauliflower until I moved away from home. Turns out it's the white or cheese sauce I don't like, not the veggies.

    Oh, and I can live without octopus, too.

  8. The cookbooks alone can stir up (no pun intended!)many memories with the most used recipes spattered with ingredients!

    A favourite recipe memory involves Cookie Jar Gingersnaps. As a teenager, I thought I'd help Mom by retyping some of our favourite recipes. Unfortunately this was pre-spell check days and it came out as "coolie" jar gingersnaps! We still laugh about it! And I still like those cookies!

    A recipe I won't use again: whatever way the neighbour made parsnips! It is the only food I've ever eaten that I struggled to keep down.

    Elaine King elaineking1 at hotmail.com

  9. Lisa, Whatever is Johnny Marzetti?

    I used to dread cubed steak night. Honestly, you could chew that stuff for hours and never get it to go down. But it was all made up for by the fact my grandmother lived with us and baked all the time. Always fresh pie at my house.

    Theresa? Octopus? For guests? This seems an unusual choice, so perhaps I'm showing my white bread, meat-and-potatoes upbringing!

    I will say that Niki's photo of cornbread is making my mouth water!

    Tomorrow I talk soup. (What do you suppose Gina will make us do to get all the recipes in the inky cookbook? Send gift certs for latte'?)

  10. Johnny Marzetti is an abomination masquerading as pasta. Chunk tomatoes, spuriously labeled 'sauce' over the big fat round noodles, I can't remember what they're called. Anyway after that it is shrouded in a layer of cheddar cheese and baked in the oven. It makes me want to wretch.

    Oh, and since I have the inside track on the octopus story, you can chalk that one up to the joys of being a missionary. My husband, an MK obviously since his mother (Theresa) is a missionary, was sandbagged by the whole octopus curry thing when he was served some at a church dinner. Heh heh heh. His recollection was that it was very chewy like eating an eraser.

    Of course, because I laughed at that story, he positively enjoyed it when he went on a fishing trip with some of the men from the church in Seychelles and when they got back, they all very kindly saved the fish heads for me so that I could suck out the eyes. Luckily the kids were clamoring for them and I was able to graciously forego my 'treat'.

  11. I always love your writing Niki and it usually makes me think of thoughts I might not have. I love recipes altho I do not make new ones much any more. The one of mom's I will never make is breaded tomatoes. Some I trasure are passed down from mom and grandma and I truly hope that my kids can say the same thing someday about treasured ones. I never made them eat breaded tomatoes. :-)
    smarte34 (at) m s n (dot) c o m

  12. I'd like to delete creamed corn from my memory bank. Forever. And like you, Niki, I have to say, "Thanks, Mom!" And Mom, if you're reading this...you know why!"

  13. Oh, and Patti...I'm so jealous. I loved the food in New Orleans when I was there this spring. I can't get enough of those beignets. Oh my.

    Lisa, I don't think I'd like Johnny Marzetti.

    And Theresa, I defintely wouldn't like octopus. Yikes. I've heard lavendar pasta is flavored with octopus ink. I don't think I'll be trying that anytime soon.

  14. What's the first recipe from your repertoire that came to mind as you read this post? Three Cheese Baked Ziti's. It's my standby recipe.

    Humorous question: If good recipes stir up good memories... what recipe would you like to delete from your memory banks and why? beef stew. Hated eating it as a child and I promised myself I would not have to eat it again as an adult or torture my kids into eating it.


  15. The first recipe I thought of was my Mimi's chocolate eclair, which me and my cousin Pete renamed Chocolate Declair. No idea why, except that we're known to fight over the last piece. I have the recipe now but haven't made it yet. It's a bit much for me to eat by myself! And her chocolate chess pie.

    And her cornbread dressing. We don't measure the sage. We go by how green the cornbread turns as it's mixed in! Usually takes two of the little things of sage. At least.

    My other grandmother, Mamaw, is famous for substituting. However she's not very good at it. One year at Thanksgiving she made the most awful choices in a dressing that had fruit in it, and her grandchildren will never forget it. It was awful! We have all sworn off dressing with fruit in it for all eternity.

    I would love to delete pink stuff from my memory. It's the most disgusting thing ever and I can't even stand the way it smells. Fruit cocktail, strawberry Jell-o and cottage cheese.


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