Cooking from Memory
I was barely twenty and living in my first apartment when I made a grilled cheese sandwich for the first time. I can't remember why but I walked away from the stove and when I came back the plain white bread had blackened and smoke rolled up in waves. The smoke detector went off and I scrambled to open the windows and silence the beeping. And to encourage the smoke to go outside I set the hot pan on the window sill. I didn’t realize it but the window frame was plastic, not the metal I’d thought it was, and the hot pan melted a good portion of the window casing.
I had assumed, wrongly, that making a grilled cheese sandwich was too easy to mess up. My mom had always made cooking seem effortless, pulling random ingredients together to create lunches and dinners and desserts. Several times as a teenager she’d offered to teach me to cook, she’d asked for help, and I’d done the bare minimum and never really paid attention. I wasn’t interested in learning at the time. But now it’s one of the things I enjoy most. I've learned through trial and error. Sometimes a lot of error.
My mom is an amazing cook, taught by my great grandmother, and always makes enough to feed a table full of farmhands because that's how she learned. Between the things she's brought with her from her childhood she's also picked up recipes from the places we've lived over the years. Every summer we'd visit my great grandparents on their Kansas farm. Sometimes it took a flight across the Atlantic or a two day drive from the coast but in June or July we'd end up on those narrow gravel roads.
Those dinners were fried catfish my great Grandfather had caught that day, cantaloupe from the garden, huge heirloom tomato slices, and sweet corn on the cob. They grew most of their own vegetables and everything tasted sweet and intense, like eating sliced summer and cool firefly filled nights. For years I’ve gone to farmers markets hoping to come across tomatoes that taste as good as memory. But nothing ever tastes the same. I think their little patch of land held magic in the soil, soy bean fields surrounding the two story white farm house with the front porch swing, purple clematis and old fashioned roses growing beside the door.
So I come from a background of women confident in the kitchen, seemingly with a natural affinity, that over the years I've almost gotten close to. Several years ago I made my first and only Thanksgiving dinner. My Mom was recovering from a major surgery and I volunteered to put the meal together. I followed her directions and cooked the giant bird in an oven bag. When the time came to take it out I opened the bag and grabbed the turkey with these giant fork things she'd loaned me. The meat fell apart and I ended up lifting the skeleton of the bird out, leaving all the meat behind. My dad said it was the best turkey he’d ever eaten but to this day I have no idea why it fell apart like that.
All recipes are, in some way, an exploration of the link between food and memory. - Yotam Ottolenghi
There are things that remind me, tugging me into the past, the scent of homemade bread and oatmeal cookies, the taste of sun ripened tomatoes still hot from the summer garden. These things tell me who I am, help to define my childhood, sticking pieces of me together, white gravy filling the spaces around my heart. Maybe not healthy but very, very good.
I cook from memory. Sometimes I look up a new recipe, add it to the crowd of instructions spinning around in my head, but after I’ve cooked it once I rarely refer to it again. I cook things from childhood, seeing my great grandmother and mom at the stove, listening to the sizzle in the pan. Over the years Thai and Indian curries, spicy boiled peanuts from the Deep South, Spanish cheeses and olives have joined the rotation, pomegranates and citrus fruit, reminding us of the countries we’ve lived in and loved, reinforcing memory; sweet tea and white gravy, chicken tikka masla and naan, peanut butter cookies and German chocolate cake.
Over time I've cobbled together my own menu, things that come from neither family or friends, recipes pulled from books or Pinterest at 2AM. Sometimes I wonder what it is my kids will remember when they're older, what dinner will they take with them when they go? I promise not to laugh if one of them calls after they've burned dinner beyond recognition and set the smoke alarm off. We've all been there.