If you’re a cook, you know how it feels to have someone taste one of your culinary specialties and ask for your recipe. You can’t help feeling a little bit proud that someone liked something you created well enough to want to make it themselves in their own kitchen.
Recently, I had a recipe request that tugged on my heartstrings. It came in the form of a text on my phone from the widower of a lifelong friend of mine who died just before Christmas last year. I knew it had been a tough year for him, but was surprised when I saw his request. With Thanksgiving rapidly approaching, he asked me if I had a recipe for mincemeat pie. I replied by texting him a mincemeat pie recipe from the classic circa-1950 Mennonite Community Cookbook and telling him the brand of mincemeat that Dennis and I prefer.
I also reminded him that he’s invited to join us for Thanksgiving dinner, as he and his late wife had done several times after their daughter went away to college out of the area. He thanked me, but said he was headed to visit his daughter, who now lives in the state where she graduated from college.
As it turned out, a few days later, the same gentleman contacted me to ask if I had a recipe for pumpkin pie. This time I referred him to Dennis, who’s by far the more accomplished pie baker in our household. I later learned that my friend’s widower had been able to track down his late mother’s pumpkin pie recipe through a relative. He even reported back to me that he had made a pumpkin pie using his mother’s recipe, and it had turned out reasonably well.
All this got me thinking back to 14 years ago. That’s when, for the first time, I was the one in charge of making Thanksgiving dinner on my own, instead of assisting my mother, who had passed away the previous year. I was in the same boat as my friend’s widower — I longed for the taste of all the traditional Thanksgiving dishes, but I had never thought to ask my mother for her recipes.
In particular, I wanted to make her special cranberry sauce — the one that was enjoyed even by folks who normally didn’t like cranberries. It used real berries, raspberry Jell-O and red seedless grapes. However, in what proportion and how the dish was prepared, I had no idea. And she had no recipe in her old recipe box.
I had a similar dilemma with trying to duplicate her corn casserole. It tasted almost like corn pie, and used similar ingredients, but substituted oyster crackers for the crust. In addition to serving it for Thanksgiving, my mother often took it to covered dish socials, where she was frequently asked for the recipe. Unfortunately, nowhere in her recipe box could I find the directions for making this dish. I tried to recall some of the folks she would’ve shared this recipe with, but unfortunately, each of them had also passed away.
In the case of the cranberry sauce, I was able to find a basic recipe on a package of fresh cranberries and through trial and error, have come up with a good approximation of my mother’s “cranberry relish,” as she often called it. It has just the perfect balance of sweetness from the Jell-O and grapes to offset the tartness of the cranberries, so I try to eat my fill at the Thanksgiving table, as there’s usually very little of it left over.
As for the corn casserole, I went online in search of a similar recipe, but without much success. A friend of mine from Bucks County helped by finding a somewhat similar corn dish recipe that uses saltines instead of oyster crackers. I must admit that I’m still experimenting with that recipe — some years I hit it right and other times, like this year, not so much. I think it was overbaked this year, and maybe needed a little more milk.
This brings me to the point of this column. Over the holidays is the perfect time to share your family’s favorite recipes with the next generation. Pick up some pretty recipe cards in the stationery department and commit those traditional recipes to paper in pen and ink in your own handwriting — or type them up on your computer. Either way, it’ll make a perfect stocking stuffer. Aside from tasting good in the years to come, it will also be a reminder of you and all the wonderful dinners you’ve made.
And if you’re a younger member of the family, don’t wait until it’s too late to ask for that favorite recipe and you end up in my shoes, and those of my late friend’s husband. Get that recipe now — I believe they’ll be so pleased that you asked.