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Eat Joy

May 17, 2022

The last of many things my mother-in-law taught me is to specify where mourners should go for a non-religious memorial. She wanted her ashes scattered at Truman Lake in Missouri, where she spent a lot of time fishing. Yes, we made the “sleeps with the fishes” joke…we also told our stories about her and remembered, together, some of the days we shared with her.

She taught me how to make a version of chili that I thought was better than my own mother’s, and cornbread dressing that I thought was almost as good, with hard-boiled eggs chopped up in it instead of raw eggs mixed in to cook. I like to make her “baby plum” cake, from a recipe of her mother’s that calls for baby food plums in the batter, and her cole slaw, which is better than anyone’s.

One time after we’d had a long day of travel, my mother-in-law, whose name was Martha, welcomed us with a big pot of soup that was unlike anything else I’d ever tasted. It was made with cabbage, ground beef, beef broth, bell pepper, onion, grated cheddar, salt and pepper, and cumin. It’s hard to clean up but marvelous to taste.

Between Martha’s death in February and her memorial, this past weekend, I’ve been reading Eat Joy, edited by Natalie Eve Garrett, with sections on “growing pains,” “loss,” “healing,” and “homecoming.” Each essay is by a writer, telling a story about what a certain food means to them, and then there’s a recipe. It’s a good way to remember someone.

My favorite essay is by Claire Messud, about her mother. She quotes her mother as saying, late in life, that “there’s so much of life to get through, once you realize that your dreams won’t come true.” I think that’s something many of us learn from our mothers, that our lives won’t necessarily have a shape, like fictional lives do—that we may be cut off before we reach our big goals, so it’s important to find meaning and pleasure in each day.

Messud’s recipe is for the brownies her mother made. My recipe for the cabbage and beef soup is written in Martha’s beautiful cursive on a sheet of paper from a “Farm&Home Savings” notepad. Mira Jacob’s recipe is for the chai she would make with her mother giving advice like “I always warm the milk separately.” Jacobs says she adds sugar because her mother “disapproves of people adding their own sugar individually (‘Joyless,’ she will say, and she will be right.)”

Do you have recipes that make you remember particular people?

13 Comments leave one →
  1. May 17, 2022 12:44 pm

    I’m always irritated at people who want to decide FOR me how sweet (or whatever) something should be. They haven’t my tongue or my tastebuds or my history.

    They’re entitled – as we all are – to make things the way they like or is traditional, but they don’t get to tell me they’re right!

    I make almost nothing any more – zero energy and no ability to stand – but remember fondly so many of Mother’s dishes, including her world-famous chicken pie.

    And Mexican food is not Mexican food if it isn’t exactly what she cooked at our house when I was growing up in Mexico City – even knowing how vast the cuisine is. I know this says more about me than about her and Mexican food, but childhood favorites have their own magic – except for the things I wouldn’t eat then and won’t still. One could talk about these topics for days and barely get started.

    • May 19, 2022 12:07 pm

      With tea, I think sometimes people do need to be offered a pot or pitcher that has been sweetened because it’s messy and often less good-tasting if you add sugar after a glass of iced tea or cup of chai has been poured. It’s easy to leave some without sugar and offer that too.
      A lot of Eat Joy is about childhood favorites. Some of my favorite recipes from my MIL seem like childhood favorites, at this point (after 40+ years of marriage).

      • May 19, 2022 2:23 pm

        I understand – but I don’t drink tea or coffee, so I didn’t know it didn’t taste the same if you added the sugar later!

        Childhood favorites – so many of mine are things I can’t or shouldn’t eat any more. I miss them. If they ever fix ME/CFS, I will be trying a much more varied diet.

  2. May 17, 2022 1:52 pm

    This is a lovely tribute and I’m glad you had great weather for the memorial. I remember my grandmother every Christmas when we make her “bon bon” cookies, which are rolled up strips of powdered sugar, cream cheese, and butter – bake them with coconut or nuts or dates or whatever you want on the inside. Easy and delicious! I’ve also read Eat Joy and it’s really good.

    • May 19, 2022 12:09 pm

      Holidays are times when we remember those who have cooked for us by making the foods they used to make. The bon bon cookies sound good.
      I wasn’t moved to make any of the recipes from Eat Joy; just enjoyed reading through it.

      • May 19, 2022 2:32 pm

        I just saw where the woman who edited Eat Joy has a new essay collection called The Lonely Stories: 22 Celebrated Writers on the Joys and Struggles of Being Alone and a blog I follow highly recommended it.

  3. May 18, 2022 6:56 am

    I’m so glad y’all were able to have the memorial and remember her. She sounds like a wonderful person. Red beans and rice definitely reminds me of my dad, and the cut-out cookies we make at Christmas remind me of my mom, though overall I don’t have strong recipe-people associations due to being uhhhhh a very medium cook. 😛

    • May 19, 2022 12:15 pm

      I actually know what you mean about being a “medium cook.” I learned to cook mostly by reading, after my children were born. Then I started asking my mother and MIL for a few of their recipes.
      The cabbage beef soup was an exception, though–I asked her for that recipe the first time I tried it. I don’t even think Ron and I were married yet, or we were newly married and traveling through.
      Etouffee reminds me of your dad since our first visit to your parents’ house–he’s such a good cook! And beignet “fingers” remind me of your mother, since she took us out for some of the best I’ve ever had.

  4. May 19, 2022 12:54 pm

    What a lovely tribute to Martha! And the book sounds wonderful. I have several recipes for preserves from my grandma–I loved her preserved peaches and her pickled beets. Sadly, I learned recently that it would be a very bad idea for me ever to make any of her preserves or use the old Ball canning book she gave me. Apparently these older recipes aren’t FDA certified as safe. Though no one ever got sick from anything Grandma made so I’m not too worried about it, especially since I have made the pickled beets before with great success 🙂

    • May 19, 2022 1:01 pm

      I’ll bet your grandma had rules that had been passed on to her about safety for preserving foods–it matters whether we’ve watched these older family members make their recipes and written down what they say at each step.
      Do you know the joke about why the cook always cut the end off the ham? She asked her mother, and her mother said it was because her own mother always cut it off. So they asked the grandmother and she said “because that’s the only way it would fit in my pot.”

  5. May 23, 2022 11:33 am

    Food can bring such joy and so many memories alive. I like the sound of this book. Adding it to my ever growing TBR

    • May 23, 2022 11:46 am

      I think you’ll enjoy it as much as I did. It’s a very pretty book!

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