There’s magic in cooking. I didn’t understand that until a few years ago. A recipe, followed precisely the way you were told to follow it, brings back a taste you’ve enjoyed before. The magic of this is when you follow the recipe and taste something that someone who is now gone used to make. It’s a visit from that person. It’s their love and creativity in a single bite, a single scent, a single moment where you close your eyes and think of them and of holidays past.
I happened to ask my Grammy for her famous stuffing recipe the year before she passed away unexpectedly. I now make it every year, and it feels like she’s there, suggesting next time I try adding oysters, knowing I’ll cringe and never do that. I happened to ask my Papa for advice on mashed potatoes the following year, since he was always the Potato Master at every family get together, citing his days cooking for the Army. He gave me great advice, that I happened to jot down while we were on the phone. Leukemia took him the next year. My grandparents cooked lots of things over the years, but the stuffing and mashed potatoes that grace my Thanksgiving table every year are from them.
The first Christmas after they passed, my folks came up to Chicago to celebrate with us. I said I’d really like to have the salad Grammy and Papa used to call “Wilted Lettuce,” which includes a hot bacon dressing. My folks brought Grammy’s recipe card for it and worked together to make what turned out to be a rather complicated and time-sensitive recipe. They laughed at Grammy’s notes on the card and they shared memories of this dressing being made over the years. When we all sat down at the table and tasted it, it was all we could do not to cry. It was perfect. My Mom said later that it helped her and my Dad feel like Grammy and Papa were there with them in the kitchen again, and it made this first Christmas without her parents a little better somehow.
Last year for Thanksgiving, I had my little baby boy in the kitchen with me. I was nervous about how I would pull off cooking while Ryan was at work and I had the baby by myself, but Harrison happily sat in his carseat in his stroller in the middle of the kitchen while I danced and cooked around him. I put on Christmas music and sang to him, I explained that the sweet potato concoction I was making was a dish I’d been put in charge of at age 12 in my family and had made every year since. I stopped to feed him some baby food, which he had just started eating, and looked at this little miracle, this new generation, in my kitchen on Thanksgiving Day. I hope I can create memories for him that he’ll cherish throughout his life. I hope the tastes and smells of Thanksgiving and Christmas stay with him, and his soon-to-be brother, forever. I hope that the magic of cooking works on my children and grandchildren to keep me in their minds and hearts for holidays decades to come.
There is magic in cooking. May you find your tastes and smells this year with family, friends, or perfect strangers. Happy Thanksgiving.
Until next time… “I have conversations with her while I’m cooking. And I feel like she’s there with me in the kitchen.”
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