A few years ago I compiled a recipe book for my children, one containing our family favorites as well as those handed down through generations. When I began, I thought it would be an easy and quick thing to accomplish but it quickly overwhelmed me. I hadn’t realized just how many recipes I had nor how scattered they were all over the house, stuffed in drawers, used as bookmarks, written on the backs of envelopes, and dozens more stuck in a myriad of cookbooks I’d collected over the years.
The more recipes I found, the more they brought with them old stories and family history, too, turning this almost impossible undertaking into a labor of love. During the process, which took over a year to complete, I ran across photos I’d forgotten and some I’d never even seen – and those, of course, came with more stories, both happy and sad. Needless to say, the cookbook morphed into a photo album as well and in the end included little stories and asides. It is well over 200 pages long today, and I’m gradually putting together a second volume. The more I found and remembered, the more I realized how integral the stories and photographs are to many of these recipes.
The photos and the memories, as well as the recipes, catalogue the history of our family. I want my children to make the recipes therein, recall the stories, make the connections. My younger son, Jeff, asked if I minded that he’d altered some of my recipes. Not at all, I told him. In fact, I’ve encouraged all of them to accommodate their own taste buds by doing just that as long as they leave those inherited from my grandmother, the ones that represent our Slovenian heritage, exactly as they are. Improvements necessitate changing a recipe, sometimes even throwing it out and beginning again, but they shouldn’t be afraid to let go of something that doesn’t work anymore. Tastes change. Not everything gets better with time. Food spoils – and people sometimes, too.
Flavors must blend into the perfect combination of spices, textures, and tastes to make the perfect meal – even if not the perfect family. But whose is perfect? And what do we learn of life, devotion, loyalty, compassion, or even love, if we’ve come from one? Just because a family looks perfect on the outside doesn’t mean it is. We tend to take too much at face value.
A good recipe, like a good family, takes time to prepare. It requires patience, unrelenting effort, trial and error, and adherence to certain guidelines which, depending on the conditions, can be modified to achieve the best results. It requires time spent with people, or ingredients, important to you, time getting to know them, time doing things together. It requires giving yourself wholly over to the moment – and accomplishing something in the end that means something in the doing as well.
Some recipes don’t always turn out as we might like, but the fun is in the doing, isn’t it, and the taste that lingers is salty from tears shed in both happiness and frustration, sorrow and joy, and sometimes even in despair. It is the taste of family life as it’s shared with those we love and those who love us.
My kitchen is a lifeline. The granite island in the middle of it is where I tend to work through problems by kneading potica, a nutbread considered Slovenia’s culinary treasure, or pounding strudel dough and stretching so thinly I can see the pattern of the granite beneath it. My island offers a socially acceptable physical outlet for my frustrations and disappointments. It’s where I can smack people around (metaphorically speaking) without consequences.
The kitchen has always been a gathering place, where we come together to talk, plan, eat, laugh, and cry. It’s where we hang out together, peering into the refrigerator, the cupboards, to snack on this and that.
It’s been a good place to look inside myself, a good place to resolve issues. Instead of beating myself up over something, I beat the egg whites. Instead of reliving past mistakes, I revisit my mother and grandmother’s difficult lives – by comparison, mine’s been easy. Instead of crying over the mess I’ve made with bad choices, or the wrong ingredients, I wipe them all away and vow to do better.
If the soufflé falls just when it looks like it will turn out perfectly, you make it again and again until you get it right. I do, anyway. It’s the perfectionist in me. When you finally open the oven, set the soufflé on the counter, and, voila, it doesn’t fall, your heartaches have brought forth something you can be proud of. And if you’ve been paying attention, that person looking back at you in the mirror – for better or worse, you made that, too.
Nothing is more important than a sense of belonging, and the certainty of family contained within the pages of the past upon which this homemade cookbook is founded. In the kitchen we reach for the right spices and the best ingredients to prepare the perfect dish. In life we reach for the stars – and for each other.