When You Follow the Recipe.
My great-grandmother, Blanche, made a dessert salad for church picnics and holidays that was canned fruit, whipped cream, and love. She snipped full-sized marshmallows into quarters for it—dipping her kitchen shears into ice water as she went to keep them from being glued shut with the sticky sweetness. Never miniature marshmallows, mind you. Those wouldn’t absorb the juice correctly—take your time and use your scissors.
She worshiped in the Episcopal tradition and took the dish with her, along with my mother when she was extremely tiny—clad in dresses made to match my great-grandmother’s own with the leftovers from her own sewing. My mother thought she was big stuff: dressed like grandma, all but the cat-eye glasses.
Today I go to a church picnic, in the Episcopal tradition, where the new Bishop will gather with children on water slides and people in heat over a hundred degrees. I will bring the White Salad. I never met my great-grandmother on that side. She is a legend to me, made of stories of propriety and resilience. She was a proper lady where my other maternal great-grandmother was a hillbilly. She was lace; the other was cast iron.
But she was no less tough for all of that.
Last night I snipped a bag and a half of marshmallows into quarters, and I thought about her. She raised my grandmother and her brother in a blended family with an iceman and a stepdaughter. I snipped.
Blanche and her sisters played dominoes instead of cards, because of the influence of their Texas roots where cards were a Devil’s game. You didn’t sit at their table until you knew how to count the dots, make your moves in a timely fashion, and not complain about losing. It wasn’t for kids. Snip.
And one of her sisters, my mother’s Aunt Pearl, was a rebel. She married when she was my age now—forty-one. And when she did, it was to “Orville, the card-carrying Communist.” That was how he was known to the entire family, as a proud member of the American Communist Party. Pearl herself was a teacher and never bore children. She told everyone that each of her students was her child, and she didn’t need any of her own. She wore bright red lipstick her whole life, sported stylish clothes, and enjoyed her outsider status. Snip.
I never met either of these sisters: the conventional and the one who winked at convention.
When I moved out on my own, my mother gave me a recipe book as my housewarming present. It was family recipes, all written in my mother’s hand, including the White Salad. Recipes that are associated with specific people are named by them. My grandmother’s Million Dollar Pie. A certain aunt’s dinner rolls.
The recipe book has traveled with me across the country, across a half-dozen moves. Its pages are stained with midweek dinners and Christmas parties. A cat chewed some its pages once, and I’ll never know why. I have removed the pages from its spiral spine and put them into plastic sleeves in a binder, but it is still used when I make my mother’s chocolate chip cookies (universally described by my friends as the best they have ever had).
I don’t make these recipes without the people who gave them to me standing in my kitchen with me. They peek over my shoulder, crowd around the oven peering to see what’s turning golden (or burning).
Some of them are ghosts I have never met. Like Blanche. I feel her standing beside me while I snip the marshmallows, nodding her approval as I dip the scissors before they stick. Is that Pearl calling from the table, pulling dominoes from the box and asking when her sister will be finished with her dish and ready to play?
Others I know well. I hear my dad’s sister’s bubbling laughter and the unstoppable chatter his side is known for, as rolls are buttered and my goodness aren’t they taking their time to rise? And did you hear that your old neighbor’s in the hospital? Yeah, he is, and ain’t that a shame. His daughter went to school in Ohio, too. Where did you go again?
And some, like my hillbilly great-grandmother, Opal, I know best through her recipes. Her ice cream recipe was first written down by her daughter-in-law, my grandmother. She captured each ingredient in small bowls and cups as my great-grandmother tossed them in by eye. Grandma measured them out to write down the amounts for posterity.
It’s right that I should know Opal this way. I met her as an old woman with dementia. She had a full head of thick hair the color of wet limestone. She didn’t know who I was. She was quiet, though I gathered that was not new. She cooked by feel—making perfect biscuits by measuring flour by whatever cup was closest and frying cornbread in cast iron with a dash-and-pinch methodology.
I feel Opal in the kitchen chair watching quietly as I try my hand at frying a chicken in cast iron for the first time. Needs more pepper in the dredge, I think. And she grunts and nods. As close to approval as a stoic like her might allow.
I pick up my big dish out of the refrigerator.
You are bringing the White Salad, aren’t you, Blanche? It just isn’t a church picnic without it.
Don’t worry. I made her recipe.