Cooking Family

Happy Valentine’s Day

Recipes are the currency by which generations of women define and distinguish themselves from other families.  These sometimes secret formulas, handed down from mother to daughter, are inscriptions of endearment, the personal stamp encrypted in each dish like DNA.  For my husband’s family, it’s the rutabaga recipe at Thanksgiving and the corn and oysters stuffing.  On my side, it’s the secret ingredient of buttermilk in which to cook lima beans, Snickerdoodle cookies and a simple homemade teriyaki marinade for flank steak that tenderizes meat as if it were a five-star chop house.

And if cooking is a physical manifestation of love, then it was a heart-felt gift this past summer to receive my grandmother’s well-worn 1943 original  Joy of Cooking.  Like a butterfly working it’s way out of the cocoon, my mother has begun wriggling free of her possessions.  It’s an almost compulsive need to shed herself of her earthly weight before she is incapable of doing so, although thankfully there are no signs that she is flagging.  She is a methodical person, a plotter and list maker like me, and she is determined to hand her three girls the physical pieces of our legacy in person.

When I eyeballed the cracked spine and no-nonsense pale blue and white cloth cover, I hesitated.  True confession: I’m a sloppy cook book chef.  I like to improvise too much and I’m lazy when it comes to precise directions.  Blanching, poaching, measuring, sifting, these are all too fussy.  I like to experiment a little, break the rules.  Besides, I thought, I had already lovingly transcribed my favorite family dishes onto index cards in a recipe holder I‘d made as a kid in 4-H.   The book was delicate, the pages yellowed.

Inside the front cover was a notation in pencil from my grandfather.  And then in my grandmother’s alternatively loopy and cramped handwriting was a poem she had clearly copied as a younger wife, presumably to remind herself that the way to her young husband’s heart was ultimately through his stomach.

“Crestfallen bride, you labored long

To bake that lovely cake
And heard your husband’s
“Not so good as my mother used to make”

Before you shed your angry tears
Or hang your head in shame,
Remember – not too long ago
His father said the same”

I smiled when I read this anachronistically docile and sentimental ditty.  Nana Stokes was anything but a blushing bride.  She was a grand, strong, southern woman, a concert pianist who moved north when she married a Yankee.  She had her funny eccentricities, her fur coat, her French words, her guided tours to foreign countries.   But almost above all of that, she was a consummate cook whose love for us all manifested itself in her giant Sunday suppers.  Long before people anguished over clogged arteries, gluten-free diets and veganism, she was a cooker of lard, that southern staple that made for feather-light fried chicken and pie crusts that flaked like croissants.   She boiled okras and used bacon grease liberally.  She salted watermelon and made berry sherbets and pound cakes with dairy cases of butter. She would have laughed in the face of canola oil or scoffed at Mrs. Dash.

My grandfather, a much quieter soul, was probably stunned into submission by her cooking.  I imagine that it was her ability in the kitchen that held him at times, that endeared her to him, that smoothed out her rough, bossy edges and her strident voice.  I wonder now, how he viewed her when she was hard at work, her tongue  clucking, arms flailing around the timing of her roast, a shock of curly hair wilted onto her forehead by the blast of oven heat.


Even in the later years of their marriage, where habit and familiarity had frayed their patience, made them snappish and outwardly less considerate, her cooking brought all parties to the table on a Sunday after church.  Food was the great equalizer.  Being called to the table meant children washed their hands and grown-ups laid down their discussions before pulling up a chair and smoothing a napkin on their laps. Heads bowed, lips murmured, silverware clattered.   Family time.

Flipping through the middle pages of The Joy of Cooking, a yellowed newspaper clipping fell out, and I reached to pick it up.  Now this was more like the feisty grandmother I knew.

“Remember Christopher Morley’s little stanza –

 “The man who never in his life
Has washed the dishes with his wife
Or polished up the silver plate –
He is still largely celibate.”

And there it was, I smiled to myself.  The bookends of a bride’s life captured in this best-selling bible of domesticity.  She had left her father’s house to marry with the unbridled hopefulness of a young woman. And she had evolved, like all of us, into a more realistic and gimlet-eyed wife.  Her chosen stanza reflected the shrewder woman who had come to terms with a rich, mellowing love amidst the servitude and routine of real life.  It was this wife who had wisely learned to barter a little nookie in the bedroom for some help in the kitchen.

Because lets face it, when all else fails, a cook can always withhold the dessert.














  1. Jane Squires

    February 15, 2012 at 4:59 am

    I love the Joy of Cooking cookbook. I made sure both my grown daughters have a copy. But what they treasure more is a photo album I filled with recipes of Mom's tried and true receipes with comments where each recipe come from.
    I have even given neices copies of it.
    I want you to know my husband truly loved his gift of seasonings, spices, peach preserves (peach is his favorite) and olive oil I won. I gave it to him for Valentine's day. He loves to cook.
    God bless
    Enter me to win

  2. Nancy Yedlin

    February 15, 2012 at 3:04 pm

    I loved your post and it made me think of my own own recipe revelation related to love. When I was a teenager my parents divorced and my father remarried.My stepmother was a wonderful woman, a high powered professional who worked very hard and embraced her 3 stepchildren as her own. She made a great chicken dish from the New York Times Int'l Cookbook called Lee Lum's Lemon chicken. We'd stop by for dinner on a weeknight and request this dish, which she would cook, her apron covering her silk blouse. Many years later after my stepmother died of cancer and my Dad gave her cookbooks to me, I looked up the recipe and was stunned! It required dredging the chicken in chestnut floor, julienning lots of vegeatables, deep frying, draining, squeezing lemons……you get the idea. As a working mother myself by then, I couldn't believe my stepmother would put out this effort for us after a long day at a demanding job. Of course we had no idea what it took to make that dish. She did and she made it. What love!

  3. Kate

    February 17, 2012 at 5:34 pm

    This was a delightful post. Loved it and love your blog. Caught your piece on CBS This Morning the other day about taking away the keys from older parents – I have defected from the Today show and am now a faithful CBS This Morning follower!

  4. Deb Woerpel

    February 19, 2012 at 12:58 am

    Loved reading this! Last Christmas, after many failed attempts with no recipe to follow, I managed to replicate a favorite cookie my nana used to make every holiday. Not exact, but close. With each bite, I remember the joys of her house "up north", the snow, the fireplace…food and memories! I just learned that I am about to be a grandma – and have already begun to gather bits and pieces to pass on to my daughter, especially those recipes she has come to love over the years. Reading your post reminded me to get going on this project – thank you! As always – your words bring comfort and laughter. You have quite a gift!

  5. Trudy

    March 2, 2012 at 9:17 pm

    Just got home from a great 2-week vacation on the southern California desert with our camper and ATV — very fun and relaxing and "away from it all" — so I just now read the Valentine's post. I have the same cookbook, except mine is my mother's, not grandmother's. It's dated 1944, the year I was born. The book is well-worn, covers falling off, and a few spaghetti sauce spots (or whatever!), but it's my good old standby, and I love it. I often refer to the equivalents and proportions (pp 821-822) — where else does one find what a No. 1 can is?! Easier for me than looking on line.
    — Trudy

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