Family. They can be tough, but they have their great moments, too – a “greatness” we sometimes fail to recognize because it resides in such small things that we can’t see what’s right in front of us.
I’ve been doing a lot of cooking the past three weeks and using several cookbooks that are favorites of mine. But Christmas is tomorrow, and I fall back on traditional family favorites for the meal – my children would be disappointed if I didn’t prepare pretty much what I always have, usually ham, mashed potatoes and gravy, homemade biscuits, assorted cookies, and mainstay holiday desserts: pumpkin pie and a chocolate cake, if I am so moved – it’s what they expect and look forward to. The past few years I’ve added a pecan pie for my granddaughter, Kearsti, because that’s her favorite, and it has managed to wheedle its way into our traditional fare. But when I mentioned making a special cream cake instead, one of my sons complained, sort of. It wasn’t a favorite of his, he said. Of course I could make whatever I wanted, he added, but “it wasn’t a favorite.”
I got the message. It’s Christmas. We have an established tradition which rarely varies much, if at all, from the ghosts of Christmases past, and he’d like it to stay that way. So I open the cookbook I made my children several years ago, the one that contains all the family favorites in one place. But finding the needed recipe wasn’t always the easiest of tasks.
Unlike June Cleaver or Harriett Nelson, I never had a cute little recipe box with alphabetized index
cards bearing hand-written recipes catalogued according to specific food categories and colored tabs. When I wanted to make something, I opened drawers bulging with cards, notes scrawled on torn envelopes, pages ripped out of spiral notebooks, and newspaper clippings (torn rather than neatly clipped). I used way too many recipes as bookmarks over the years, so you can imagine what I went through when I couldn’t find what I wanted anywhere else. The largest share, however, were in an oversized manila envelope with “Xmas” scrawled in large letters on the outside. I can still hear my mother-in-law cringe at the use of my shorthand version of this sacred holiday. A few years back I’d managed to get all my Christmas recipes into that envelope so I’d at least know where they were when the holidays came around. It, too, bulged and was splitting at its seams.
I’d often thought about compiling my recipes into a reasonable facsimile of “orderly”, at least the family favorites. We’re talking “recipe box” with maybe 20 or 30 recipes, the favorites and most often made.
The real genesis of the project, however, was my son, Jeff, Kearsti’s father, who finally called just one time too many to ask for a recipe I’d given him more than once (even more than twice) because he couldn’t find it right then when he needed it, knew it was buried in a box somewhere (like mother, like son) and didn’t want to take the time to look for it, or had simply lost it at some point – occasionally claiming I’d never given it to him.
And so began my brief collection of Grandma Mikolich’s Slovenian “re-sips” (as she pronounced
them). Over the course of the next year my “re-sip” collection morphed into a lengthy project over 200 pages long and included a collage of hundreds of photos taken over the years, family history and anecdotes, and memories which I included by way of little asides – some between recipes, some integral parts of the re-sips themselves directed to one or another of my children. I added pictures of family dinners and collective holiday baking, and pictures to demonstrate the steps involved in some of Grandma’s special treats.
In the doing, they’ve become more than re-sips – they symbolize family, evoking memories, laughter, tears. They represent the love we share, the devotion to each other that lies beneath those bursts of anger and hurt feelings that have all too often veiled those things we leave unsaid, both good and bad – and which grace even the best of tables.
I found myself talking to them through these recipes and celebrating the lives we’ve lived together as a family. These recipes carry as much history as the pictures, the stories, the family trees, or the baby booties packed away in a box in the closet or bronzed on the shelf.
What became more and more obvious was that the kitchen has always been the place where we talk, plan, eat, laugh, and cry. We hang around the kitchen peering into the refrigerator, the cupboards, picking at this and that, and just, well, being together. It’s a wonder we don’t’ each way 300 pounds! And it’s a wonder we haven’t killed each other either as many arguments have taken place in just the same spot. Life is not just a bowl of cherries, as they say – pardon the cliche, and the alliteration, too.
Some of the recipes included (most, actually) are faithful adaptations handed down from one generation to another, others are “mergers”, and a lesser few fall into the category of creative endeavors. There are also several I wanted to include that were gleaned from newspapers or shared with me by generous friends and other “food fans”.
More than anything, I wanted them to have a record of what it means to be a family, of what it means to carry on a culinary tradition that is ages old, and what it means to laugh, to cry, to reminisce with those closest to you, those who know you the best, and those who love you the most. No matter what.
This compilation is a souvenir of what it means to be “family,” and they refer to it, often, as their best gift – ever.
In planning this particular Christmas meal, I am varying the menu – somewhat. I’m having a beef tenderloin. Otherwise, the basics remain essentially in place. Everyone gets his or her Christmas comfort food, more or less.
Because these children are my best gifts – ever.