Cooking from Memory: Ma’s Recipe Book & Holiday Food Traditions

I love holiday cooking. Love it. What I love even more is holiday eating.

This year is so different with the necessity of social distancing during COVID-19. Not being able to go visit family and folks, break cornbread together, laugh, and cry, and enjoy each other is one of the hardest parts of this pandemic. Plus, I’m back to eating all matters of meat for the first holiday season after being a pescatarian for three years. I have lots of eating to do!

This makes me reflect on when I first learned how to cook and our family Christmas traditions, past, present, and future.

The Recipe Book

My brother Jermaine calls me sometimes and asks me about the recipes in the recipe book. Ma’s Recipe Book is what he calls it. It’s a collection of recipes I started collecting from her during the holidays of 2004 when I was 21 years old. I wanted to learn how to cook. And who else to teach me but the best cook of all time. (At that age, I could cook scrambled eggs, grits, and other basic items, but not a full meal.)

So much of what she knew as a cook was in her head. So much of what she knew as a cook she knew by heart. But I wanted to get those recipes nonetheless, to learn to cook for myself, to learn to cook for a future family perhaps.

The first items I learned to cook were for Christmas dinner, which at our home was always similar to Thanksgiving dinner. The very first entry in the book is how to roast a turkey, including the brine, which I’ve included below. As she would say, “Cooking a turkey in a bag is for people who can’t cook.”

Ingredients

Gallon of water

1 cup of kosher salt

1/4 cup of brown sugar

A pinch of cinnamon

(Honey optional)

Instructions

Let brine come to a boil. Wait ‘til it cools to put the turkey in or put ice in the brine to cool it down. Let set overnight.

Take the turkey out of the brine. Pat dry. Put a stock of celery, onion, and bay leaf into the cavity. Another combination to include in the cavity is oranges, lemons, and bay leaf.

Put foil cover over breast for an impression. Remove impression and rub ‘em down with (canola) Wesson oil.

Set oven to 500 degrees. Put turkey in for 15 minutes or less or until golden brown (keep checking)

Put the foil on ‘em and turn down to between 325 to 300 degrees.

Cook 3-4 hours. If the leg of the turkey moves easily, it’s done.


That day I also got the receipts for cornbread stuffing, macaroni and cheese, giblet broth and giblet gravy, candied yams, sweet potato pie, and of course turkey salad to make with the turkey leftovers.

So many of those recipes have “eyeball it” or “to taste” or “play it by ear” next to ingredients and recipe instructions. For me this solidifies cooking as an art form, something you do instinctively without the need for specificity. It makes the space for improvisation.

It was the Christmas Break of my senior year of college when she told me she had colon cancer, so the recipe book took on a different purpose. It was no longer just to get the recipes from Ma so I can learn how to cook. It became a rescue mission to get the recipes from her before she died.

Food is Love

Where I’m from, food is the highest expression of love.

One of my favorite pictures of my mother is when she was in the fellowship hall of Chavis AME Church serving up a meal. She is smiling, head thrown back, eyes closed, apron on, doing something we can’t see on a counter. On the stove in the background are several large pots of food. My guess is that pileau is in one of the pots, but it could have easily been a pot of string beans that were seasoned with bacon or maybe fatback.

I have kept the photo of my mom on the desk in my classroom for years.

She loved cooking. She loved watching people eat her cooking.

“If they have a healthy appetite, that means they are doing good,” was what she would say about babies and young children. Seconds and thirds were welcomed. “You had enough? Do you want some more?”

Where I’m from, when someone dies there’s a period of time called the setting up. It is customary to bring the family food. Some people bring the food already cooked, food they cooked in their home or the bucket of chicken they picked up from down the road. Others bring the raw ingredients and cook it right there on your stove, or on your grill, or on their own propane stoves they brought with them. I really didn’t like catfish stew until I had my cousin Barry’s stew at Da’s setting up.

They bring food and libations as a balm, to remind you that although your loved one is dead, you are still in the land of the living, and you have to get on with the business of living, so eat some of this good food.

In her last days Ma stopped eating all together. The tomatoes, fresh out of Da’s garden, and grits I made for her was the last meal I tried to feed her. She took one bite, just to please me, but did not eat much more. Her body was no longer in need of such an earthly things as eating or drinking.

After three years of being pescatarian, I went back to eating all meat this year, partly because I craved chicken while I was pregnant. It’s been interesting to go back and revisit the recipe book and read the meaty recipes. To look at her recipe for beef stew and meatloaf, company chicken and roasted hen. I had already made her recipe for salmon cakes several times before. My husband is especially appreciative of the dish, and is always extremely thankful to the mother-in-law he has never met.

He looks forward to when I make sweet tea. The number one thing about sweet tea is that brand of tea makes the tea. Luizanne is the only sweet tea that matters. And there’s a special way to steep the tea that I won’t share here (Hint: Don’t follow the directions on the box). It’s not overly sweet, and strong enough.

It’s how Ma taught me how to make tea. It’s not in the recipe book, but it’s something she showed me real quick and was immediately committed to memory.

Christmas Magic

I saw something on someone’s wall on social media once that said as you get older, Christmas isn’t so much about what’s under the tree, but about who is around the tree, and by default who is not around the tree.

Growing up Christmas Eve was always our time to be together as a family. Ma would make some sausage balls for us to snack on throughout the night. We would be outside with Da popping fireworks for most of the night before we turned in for bed. Ma never let me put cookies out for Santa. “He knows to look for them in the oven,” she would say. And I trusted that as a kid. It’s hilarious as an adult. Those nights were pure and simple and magic. All five of us would be together on that night, and that was all that really mattered.

Now with a family of my own, I have my own traditions to work out. This will be my son’s first Christmas. And he won’t remember any of this. His only meal will be the liquid gold I provide to him, but my new role as a mother has me thinking about the new traditions we will eventually develop as a family. One thing I know for sure is that I want the sausage balls to be there. And fireworks. Add in some hot chocolate, maybe a fire with some toasted marshmallows…

Maybe one day my husband, son, and I will huddle in the backyard on a Christmas Eve, standing close together and looking up into the night sky at fireworks exploding around us. Maybe then we will feel that same magic I felt when I was a kid. Maybe the feeling will be even stronger because this new magic will be ours.

What are some of your holiday traditions or foods? Let me know in the comments!

Published by jenniferbartellpoet

Jennifer writes and teaches in South Carolina.

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