This week I’m happy to participate in a blog share with Catherine Lanser. I met Catherine this summer in a Remember to Write! memoir workshop I taught in summer 2019. We agreed on the topic of Family Holiday Recipe, inspired by Dawn Roode’s post on her blog at Modern Heirloom Books.
My post about my first exposure to true “foodies” at an epic holiday dinner appears on her blog. Enjoy Catherine’s post below. It was fun to work on this writing challenge in tandem. If you are moved to write about it on your own blog, let me know in the comments, and I’ll share with Catherine. And if you’d like to submit a holiday family recipe to True Stories Well Told, please do! Guidelines here.
Instructions to the Past
by Catherine Lanser
My heritage lives in my stomach. It is the taste on my tongue when I close my eyes and picture the oval table where my mom and dad fed my eight siblings and me. My legacy is the weight of a heavy foam plate balanced on my lap while I sit cross-legged on the basement floor surrounded by more than 30 cousins. And while I am of big pots and doubled batches, the story of my familial food is told in two remarkably slim volumes.
My mom has given me two collections of family recipes. They mingle with the rest of my cookbooks and my own recipe clippings so that when I need, I can pull them off the shelf and taste my original palette. Though what I crave may change, I always have a place for these recipes, pulling them down when only a sample of the tried and true will do.
Recipes from Mom
I believe I received the spiral-bound issue first. It pictures a simple blue and white place setting on the front with the words, “Recipes from Mom,” printed on the plate. Each page holds a list of typed recipes starting with one page of appetizers and then eight pages of desserts. Following that there is a mixed page that includes my mom’s famous Butter Horns, Instant Potato Casserole, Egg Dressing for Potato Salad, Barbecue Sauce for Chicken or Spareribs, and Goulash.
The next page has four dinner recipes, followed by a page saucy flavors I would not recommend eating together including Best In The World Pickles, Rhubarb Jam, Spam Sandwiches, Barbecue, and Thousand Island Dressing. The final page has a recipe for Pizza Burgers which again calls for Spam.
I do not remember eating Spam. Since I was at the baby of the nine children, I am told I had it much better than my older siblings. They would say I never had to eat Spam as they did, but I don’t think that’s true.
This volume is packaged in a slim blue binder. It must have come after the first book as the desktop publishing skills are quite advanced, with scrapbook designs that became popular as home computing advanced. There are two pictures on the cover, one of my dad pinning a corsage on my mom and another of my brothers and sisters and me at our parents’ 45thwedding anniversary mass.
This book takes a more archival approach to our food lineage. Recipes appear alongside photos of our family. There are scans of the original recipes written in both my mom and dad’s handwriting, which in many cases is faded or hard to read, next to a typed version of the recipe.
We learned the importance of keeping family recipes as many families do, after my dad suffered a stroke and became severely disabled, later dying. Some of my dad’s recipes, like his pickles, made it to the book on scraps of paper. Others, like his famous apple flat, were recreated by memory.
Like the other book, this book goes heavy on the desserts, starting with Poppy Seed Torte, a recipe that was served at family gatherings and funerals long before I was born. Alongside the recipe are pictures of relatives I never met and my parents welcoming people through the receiving line at their wedding.
Page two features what has become my mom’s featured dish: butter horns. This recipe starts with a yellowed Refrigerator Dough recipe from our church cookbook, and then continues on with instructions written of scraps of paper, finishing with this handwritten note from my mom: “Here’s the times of the year that I make butterhorns, Easter, Bake Sales, First Communion, All Family Celebrations, Christmas.”
As you can see, as her signature dish, butter horns are wrapped around our history as well. This pastry, which is rolled into horn shapes and filled with walnuts, cinnamon and sugar, and frosted with icing, is one I have never seen anywhere else. It is uniquely ours as are the stories and the table we eat it around. Protecting the recipe, along with the others in the book is imperative. Without it, it seems all that would be lost.
But whatever the recipe, the book is not good enough for the treasures it holds. It should be printed on fine paper and bound in leather. It tells the story of a family. And any family is made up of what they eat. Any family deserves a record of what they were made of. It’s part of family lore and instructions to recreating the moments that have shaped us.
© 2019 Catherine Lanser
Catherine Lanser writes about growing up as the baby of a family of nine. She is looking for a home for her memoir about how she found her place in her family, told through the lens of her brain tumor and her father’s stroke. She has published numerous essays. Learn more at www.catherinelanser.com