KANSAS CITY, Mo. – One of the hardest things each of us must endure is losing loved ones. It can’t be avoided as so goes the Circle of Life. In our family, one way we keep the memories of loved-ones past alive is by using their recipes. This may sound strange to some, but certain dishes bring back wonderful memories of loved ones who will forever remain very much alive in our hearts.
My paternal grandmother, for instance, was a basic but wonderful cook. I can still picture her in her blue flowered and faded short-sleeved work gown with barely visible gray netting holding her white hair into a perfect bun atop her head while busily working in the kitchen. Standing about five foot, six inches tall in her black work shoes with thick heels, she was razor thin and didn’t resemble your stereotype, robust cook. But boy could she cook! Summer, winter, spring or fall — her oven was always on.
For several years, she was employed as a part-time cook at Perry Grade School on Chicago’s Southeast side. I still remember walking several blocks through the bitter cold and driving Lake Michigan lake-effect snow with my mom to have lunch with her at the school on occasion in the early 1950s. While walking in knee-deep snow to her school cafeteria, we’d pass through an old, crumbling viaduct that ran under the Illinois Central railroad while the last of the steam locomotives sometimes thundered overhead causing the damp, old concrete tunnel to shake and rumble. Scary and as loud as it was, the trip was always worth it because after walking into the light-green-walled cafeteria that always smelled like vegetable soup, I’d remove my wet mittens, coat, flannel hat with earflaps and my rubber boots and settle in to enjoy grandma’s meat loaf, chicken, spaghetti and meatballs or hamburgers — and her cherry cake (hot cherries and sauce over white cake). She worked miracles with food commodities.
She also worked miracles making food at home. It seems that’s all she ever did — cook and bake. But she loved it—and so did we. Whole-roasted skin-on chicken, liver and onions, meat loaf, chipped beef on toast, pot roast, flank steak, an assortment of German sausages with red cabbage or sauerkraut, stuffed cabbage or green peppers with ground beef and rice — all were basic foods she lovingly prepared daily and she always made them taste very special. And when the holidays arrived, no one could beat her roasted turkey with all the trimmings, minced meat (ground beef) pies, cookies and fudge. Seeing that she and my grandfather owned the old, brick two-flat both of our families lived in back in those days, our small family would walk downstairs to dine with them often in their first-floor apartment dining room.
Later on, my grandparents moved around quite a bit to homes in Indiana and Illinois, but they always remained close enough for us to visit for the day and we still connected — at least during the holidays up until their final years.
Fortunately, grandma wrote her recipes on small note cards and kept them in alphabetical order in a small, gray metal box. Several weeks after she died 41 years ago, I came across her recipe box while helping to gather up the last of her and my late grandfather’s belongings at their small house that sat along a one-rail supply line in Paxton, Ill. After keeping this recipe box for several years, I finally passed it along to my older sister.
Now here we are decades later and we’re still enjoying decades-old recipes from our loved ones. With Christmas less than two weeks away, my family is planning our usual appetizers for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day — sausage pinwheels, bacon-wrapped dates, cocktail franks in sauce, spinach dip and more — all of these recipes are decades old and from various loved ones from my and my wife’s family. In order to keep memories of loved ones and holidays-past alive for future generations, my wife and I have transferred her recipes into new folders divided by categories. Ultimately they will be entered into the computer for our kids and grandkids — once we can find some free time.
Here’s hoping that enjoying old family recipes is one of your traditions, too. Don’t just prepare dishes from these old recipes, remind your kids and grandkids where they came from and tell them what you remember and loved most about those loved ones who created them.