What I Learned About Life and Family Through Cooking
Kept in old binders, canola oil and batter stained, the recipes of my childhood and my mother’s childhood make up our maternal family tree. These recipes with their varied origins and nuances tell stories, and learning to make them with my grandmother connects me to the hardworking women of my past. I grew up eating their homemade meals and baked goods including Chicken Paprikash and Apricot Kiffles—my childhood narrative filled with scenes of freshly made potpie cooking on the stove, and the savory smell of my grandmother’s kitchen greeting me when I came home from school.
As an adult, I decided it was my turn to take on the decades old dishes and baked goods that filled my memories and stomach for over twenty years. Luckily, I have my grandmother to coach me through the making some of the more cryptic recipes, and the time spent cooking with her teaches me about life, and the women who came before me.
I have a lot to learn, but here is what I have figured out so far making some of our most famous recipes.
The First Attempt at Chicken Paprikash
Everyone in our immediate family knows about this delicious and creamy Hungarian dish. My maternal grandmother inherited our family’s Chicken Paprikash recipe from her mother-in-law, whose family came from Hungary in the early twentieth-century. After learning how to make it herself, my grandmother incorporated the dish into her own set of standard dinners for many years. By the time my sister and I were old enough to appreciate this recipe, she only made it occasionally.
As one those recipes that is so old and well used, it didn’t have a recipe card, but I guarantee if it had, it would be long enough to unfold comically to the floor, accordion style. There was a lot to remember. The list of ingredients and cooking steps made my head spin, so when I decided to take on the Chicken Paprikash recipe I was a bit overwhelmed.
When we began my grandmother told me to relax. “I get frustrated when I mess up too, but really, it’s not a big deal,” she told me, “I’ve thrown food away because I messed it up before. Don’t worry.” While she took me through the recipe step by step I asked questions about the precise measurements of the flour, sour cream, and spices.
Her answer usually was, “I don’t know I just throw it in.”
At first the vagueness and guess work was frustrating. How was I going to make this again in the future? My grandmother noticed my confusion and told me that she would ask the same questions, and her mother-in-law would give a similar answer, “I don’t know, I just put it in and taste it. Just add some more salt if it tastes flat or flour if it doesn’t feel right.”
She explained that it’s ok if it’s not perfect, and to just taste as you go to understand what the recipe needs. I realized sometimes it’s ok to improvise, to observe and make decisions based on the situation. So what if I messed up? The world won’t end, and there’s a good chance that I will have a funny story, or in this case a tasty dinner to share with my family.
My first time making chicken Paprikash ended successfully, and I learned that I loved the process almost as much as the product. Now I cook with a little more reckless abandon, and try not to sweat the small stuff, because I can always add a bit more salt if I need to.
The Famous Chocolate Cut-Out Cookies
I wish I could disclose the recipe to our best Christmas cookies. Five generations old, our chocolate cut-outs remain the centerpiece of our collection of over twelve different kinds of cookies my family makes every year. We like to share, honest, but this recipe is too good and too special to share with just anyone. Our chocolate cut-outs represent a tradition between the women in our family, and every year my grandmother, mother, sister, and I get together to make them.
My favorite part of baking these cookies is the stories that surround them.
My grandmother talks about her childhood, and reminisces about making them with her siblings in their family’s small kitchen. “We used to dye the sugar ourselves,” she would say smiling. “Why didn’t you just buy them?” I asked, finger tips stained red and green from our store-bought sprinkles. “It was cheaper to do it that way,” she replied, “And that’s just what we did it back then.”
As I grew older we began to tell stories of our own about years past, and I also became responsible for different steps of the cookie making process. My grandmother still mixes the dough, but now I am responsible for rolling out the dough. To make sure the cookies are crispy, the dough needs to be rolled out thin, about the width of a dime. I didn’t appreciate the work it took to do this until I had to roll out a batch by myself.
Sweating as I press and drag the rolling pin towards me across the dough, I ask my grandmother how she did it by herself for so many years. She told me that everyone counted on her to make them, and I realized to truth about these cookies. I now appreciate the strength and dedication that it takes to make our family’s favorite cookies every Christmas. I realized that the women making them did this every year to make their family happy, and I knew I saw the same traits in myself.
Always trying to please, making sure everyone is comfortable and had what they needed above my own needs.
Legacy Through Cooking
I realized that I came from a line of strong women, who care for their friends and family above all else. These are traits that I hope to carry on through interactions with the people I love. And, of course, the food I decide to share with them.
I continue to learn from these women, one recipe at a time.