Recipes are never finished. They are living creatures, ongoing conversations. They take suggestions, substitutions, and playful twists. They readily allow for changes in culture, technology, and resources. Cookies with chopped nuts turn to cookies with ground nuts turn to cookies with no nuts at all, thanks to the fickle taste buds of children. Your great-grandma’s pie recipe is still your great-grandma’s pie recipe even though you opt for Crisco instead of lard. No one will turn over in their grave if you use rice flour in your walnut rolls so the gluten-free relatives can enjoy them as well. However, the conversation must start somewhere, and for me, it starts with my great-grandmothers.
Both my Great-Grandma Dorothy and my Baba Jay were renowned for their cooking. While Dorothy preferred cooking American classics like peach pie and crescent cookies, wearing high heels and pearls, Jay preferred cooking pierogis and halubkis, wearing bare feet and disdaining oven mitts. The two women bonded over genuine skill and quality ingredients (one because her husband ran the grocery store, and the other because her backyard was the grocery store).
This year my Grandma Peggy helped me start my own conversations with both of these women. By leafing through my grandma’s old recipe box, I learned Dorothy’s favorite spices, studied the graceful curves of her handwriting, and determined her most popular recipes by the number of spills on the card. I learned that Baba Jay assumes that everyone has cucumbers growing their garden, and that they ought to have enough to fill a two-gallon crock. I found 1940s Christmas cookies with seven minute icing, 1960s casseroles proudly filled with Cheez-Wiz. Whiskey Ball recipes that measure in jiggers, and pickle recipes that don’t measure at all. And I started a conversation with each one of them, forgiving my great-aunt for dabbling in the dark world of Cheez-Wiz, applauding her for her intimidating cheesecake recipe, adding details to my Great-Grandma Dorothy’s simple, concise instruction (Form in roll. Cover. Refrig. Slice ten. 350o), and laughing with my aunts at detailed recipes for banana boats and cheese canapés.
I decided I wanted to share these recipes with my whole family, so they could start their own conversations with each recipe. So I put together my first cookbook, connecting yellowed index cards to black and white Polaroids and colorful family photos to scribbled sticky notes. And while I initially misread some cursive and misattributed some recipes, the recipes forgave me, and we ended up with a Christmas present for everyone on my mom’s side of the family. However because the recipes are never finished, the book is incomplete. There are still new recipes to discover, new adjustments to make, and new conversations to start.