Looking ahead to Thanksgiving, I thought of this essay I wrote for Southern Living a few years ago. They cut it down to about half this length, but I still like the whole thing. And I think I may try to make a strawberry pie this week.
By Gin Phillips
I loved my grandmother’s strawberry pie. My senior year in college, it was the first of her recipes that I requested, the first I copied down and practiced relentlessly. For about three months, I was a whirlwind of strawberry and Cool Whip, depositing pies in dorm rooms across campus. I didn’t eat much myself, which I considered a blessing at the time since I’d been afraid endless pies would lead to endless pounds.
Her yeast rolls took me longer-the ‘don’t kill the yeast’ warning took a while to register-but I finally got the hang of them. And after I made them for a few dinners, I lost my taste for them. The same thing happened with spaghetti and chocolate pie.
It took me at least a dozen tries to get my great-aunt’s baked apple pies to taste like I knew they should-it was the crust that eluded me. Finally, through some crucial meeting of humidity, shortening and luck, the crust was thin and soft and salty-sweet. There was something sad about its perfection.
The mystery was gone.
Learning my family’s recipes wasn’t like finding out the truth about Santa Claus-I mean, chocolate pie definitely did exist. But the mystical, wondrous, pull-a-rabbit-out-of-a-hat secret of it all had disappeared. My favorite foods had been reduced to half-cups and teaspoonfuls and baking for 20 minutes at 350 degrees. No wands. No fairy dust. Just cold hard numbers and step-by-step instructions. As I learned the process, those once-perfect bites lost their power over me.
It was like how as a kid staring up at the sky, the clouds seemed so clearly like cotton candy, undoubtedly sweet and crunchy-soft on my tongue. And if I could get up there, in a plane with open windows, I could gulp down big mouthfuls of them until my face was sticky with them. Then you learn in school that clouds are actually just condensation, water or ice suspended in the air, and that if they taste like anything, they’ll taste like water. Plus they keep plane windows shut.
Sometimes facts are disappointing.
Sometimes still, if I really, really love a dish, I’ll make sure not to overhear the recipe for it.
Yet as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that I only solved the first layer of the mystery when I copied down those recipes. Eventually I learned them so well that I didn’t need a piece of paper, that I barely needed a measuring cup and I could judge the right consistency of dough by the feel of it against my fingertips. The measurements and index cards fell away, and there were layers and layers under them that I hadn’t been able to see for all the neatly written directions. These foods, passed down over the years, weren’t something I could know and check off a list. With the lists out of the way, though, I could start to feel the past that was folded into the batter.
Cooking my grandmothers’ best Sunday dinners or my father’s favorite ham and biscuits isn’t just about what winds up on the plate. The food itself may be routine now, but there is another fascination to standing at the kitchen counter, struggling to beat cornbread into smooth, fluffy submission. (“Beat it and beat it and when you’re sure it’s beaten enough, beat it some more,” say my grandmother and her sister, quoting my great-grandmother.) I’m not alone as I’m making the cornbread.
I hear my grandmother’s voice in my head, my hands where hers were–holding the bowl in the crook of my elbow and mixing for dear life–during the Great Depression and every decade since. And before that, around the time Teddy Roosevelt was leaving the White House, my great-grandmother, still in grammar school, was staring down at a similar bowl, the same muscles in her arm hurting, learning these lessons for herself.
The food may have lost its mystery, but the women who came before me, they are their own mysteries. And as I lean over the stove or measure out cinnamon, those women are in my head, and I am in theirs. The process, the ritual of the food, connects me to them. The recipes unlock something of them, something of their lives and their thoughts, and bring them to me, chattering and tasting and smiling, right there in my kitchen.
And that’s the magic of it.