Many years ago my Grandmother S created a small cookbook of her favorite recipes. She hand wrote each recipe, had a friend help her type them up, and got the entire book printed and bound at a local copy store. She gave copies to all of us – my mom, my aunts, my cousins, my sister and me. She called her book “Recipes Remembered.”
I love the way food helps us remember. I love that as a child, every time she and my grandfather would visit, my grandmother would call and ask each of us what we wanted for dinner during the week she was there. I love that every year before school started we would receive a big package of four different types of cookies from her – each of our favorites. I love that at every family gathering on my dad’s side my Grandma G would make an Angel Food cake – and we would sing to anyone and everyone whose birthday happened to be near. I love that traveling to Southern, IN in the summer always meant a stop at Dairy Queen on the way and Grandpa G’s Homemade Pineapple Ice Cream once we got there. I love that in our house growing up my Mom would make our favorite dinner every year on our birthday and those were the nights when you could count on everyone sitting down at the dinner table together.
As I grew up and moved away from home I mostly just looked forward to coming home so that I could get a home-cooked meal. Then, after I graduated college and moved into my own apartment, many of my repeated phone calls to my mom and grandmother were cooking-related. How do I defrost meat? I’m having friends over tonight – what can I make quick? There was always an answer to my question but mostly there was always, from miles away, an “I love you” on the other line. The food advice was always good but the love and encouragement was what made me feel closer to home. Of course my favorite dinners in Chicago were the ones on the deck, the ones that were never really planned in advance but just happened when we would find ourselves together at the end of a summer day. A grill, a group of friends and a great view of the city was all we needed to make our most enjoyable meals of the summer.
After living in the big city for two years I returned back home to Indiana for Medical School. It was during this long four year road that my passion for food flourished and my need to remember my grandmother’s recipes became even more important. During my first year of medical school we lost my grandmother to Leukemia. While I was busy sitting in a classroom learning about how the body works my grandmother was experiencing the extreme pain and agony of a body that doesn’t work. The cancer progressed, the chemotherapy didn’t work and my grandmother made the decision that she wanted to spend her final time at home with her family. For the next three months my mom, her siblings and my grandfather took care of her. There was not a time during her final months that she was left alone. My mom took over the kitchen and every night put a healthy, wholesome dinner on the table. And every night my grandmother would wheel her oxygen into the kitchen and sit at the table with her family. I was fortunate to spend two weeks with them in Pittsburgh between my first and second semester. I will never forget those two weeks because they are the last memories I have of my grandmother. The next time I returned to her home – to her kitchen – was for her funeral. For my entire life her kitchen had been the heart of her home, the warmest & most joyful place in the house. When my sister and I walked into the kitchen together that day all I felt was an overwhelming emptiness and a deep ache in my heart.
Now, almost three years later, my grandfather has moved out of their home and I only hope that the new family that moved in is filling the kitchen with as much comfort, laughter and love that we enjoyed there for almost thirty years. Her kitchen may be gone now but we have slowly begun to fill the emptiness in our hearts. Every fall we make her chili and every Thanksgiving we make her stuffing. I have assumed the role of “cookie sender” and now that all of us siblings live apart I am the one that gets to send the “back to school” cookie packages. And so, through her recipes and her love for cooking, we remember her. She found joy in cooking not so much because she loved to cook (although she did) but because that’s how she showed us she loved us. Because, in the end, it’s not so much about the food we make but about the people we make it for. And it’s not so much about the recipes we remember but the people we remember when we make them.