Mom and I, who communicate over Snapchat now, recently had a conversation about all the signature baked goods in the family. She brought up her impressive collection of “El Besto” cookie recipes, the way Elisabeth ascended from the ranks of commoners to become King of Cake, and her opinion that I should add to my arsenal of pies and complete the trifecta. The ambition of that woman. I firmly believe there’s a connection between pie and myself, but I only have recipes for peach, cherry, apple, pumpkin and pecan. I’ve never even made the pecan. These days I’ve pretty much stuck with peach, actually. Pie and I were on hiatus until this discussion. Possibly we still are, but Mom’s deadly earnest was inspiring, and the more I think about it, the more I realize that if signature foods are an art form, I should not deny Mom’s commission.
Picture as I did the coolest ladies you know, the tough broads, the ones who have measured out their lives with anything but coffee spoons. All of them navigate life with style and aplomb, but try and think of a single one who didn’t also pour some style into a trademark dish. My theory is that all of them one day set down some tasty morsel on a coffee table, and unknowingly joined the elite.
(For statistical purposes I make no mention of men here, but nod to Ferrell bread, Joe John pancakes, Grandpa’s garlic bread, and the venerable World Famous Cake.)
Mom, that lady with the cookie recipes? She thaws chicken on the counter and doesn’t even care. She will fill a tureen with the tastiest pumpkin curry soup in history, and then try to hold it still on the floor of your car with her feet, until disaster strikes. Mom is too busy to be alive, but she gets everything done, and if she has a minute to spare, she’ll show you the genius glimmering from behind all the lines on her to-do list. I have my Grandma Sigi’s Apfelkuchen recipe, but I almost can’t bear to try making it, because I’m sure it won’t have the exact flavor of my summer vacations at her house. Grandma Sigi is the reason half of my breakfasts consist of a soft boiled egg and toast. Auntie Annie moved her sweet potato skills to Texas this last week, and I’m eternally sad about it. Aunt Joyce, raw vegan sadist, will never live down that wonderful day she required young Joe to eat a celery stalk before she would give him ice cream. I’ve known her to labor over a yellow cake that she couldn’t sample at any stage, the picture of serenity as everyone else raved over the final product and took home the leftovers. Amy M. leaves bones in her soup, and turns up to the party with a dessert that makes you question your own sweet tooth for all its subtlety, balance and perfect texture. Liliana T. is a gift to us from the land of Peru and although whatever she makes turns to gold, her flan is otherworldly (and she knows it, and she knows the Rothenbuhlers know it, and she gives us extra). Susan Ferrell’s pot roast instructions are on the first page in my recipe binder. I asked her for them over my second helping of dinner at her house one day, as I discovered for the first time in my life that I do not in fact hate pot roast. (I received both a recipe and several tips for visiting the meat counter.) Vanessa has that Wabi-sabi in her blood - you know what I’m talking about. Green bean casserole, Purple Russians, and stuffed mushrooms come to mind, but it doesn’t matter what or where she’s making: tiny hands do it best. Precision is an understatement, right down to the plating, and usually sans recipe. Have you ever seen her salt and pepper something? It’s unbelievable.
Providence OPC rotates the coffee hour host family each week, and my appetite has led me to a better understanding of the social fabric here than anything else could. Within weeks I knew who the health nuts are, who is extra, and who’s too chill to be bothered. Mrs. Becker exemplifies church luncheon mastery: she makes green chili by the vat and tells tales about the hours of overzealous pork trimming involved (never an imperfect bite). Thinking of making frog eye salad for coffee hour, Anna? You can’t do that, it’s a creamy citrus dessert. Mrs. Becker owns that whole category by virtue of a single Cool Whip dish, and though she’d never dream of taking offense, common decency forbids you. Furthermore, her daughter Katie rules brownies, because she knows what’s good and she makes the boxed mix with butter instead of oil, half and half instead of water. Meanwhile I, a coffee hour greenhorn, have already faltered in my second production of Barbara Bars. Not enough jelly. I’ve tainted their reputation and Barbara’s by extension, I know it.
As for the rest of what I’ve been cooking, here’s a summary: garlic. Derek loves garlic with inordinate affection, which is why I’ve been mincing four cloves at once for single batches of Lilly brand caesar dressing almost weekly since I got here. (Karin’s recipe. Another case of disliking something before trying someone’s better version. Subtract anchovy - add garlic - it will melt your face off). We’re eating a lot of garlic butter popcorn as well. I work scant hours from home, and I have unencumbered kitchen access for the first time ever, so I’m running lots of experiments. Some have failed (more often from anticipation of altitude than from altitude, as we established), and you can only cook so much for two, but I’ve found niches. Following some tip online about smashing chicken breasts flat, I’ve produced a pretty sweet pan-blackened chicken (Derek’s true holy grail is chicken). Old favorites from Mom and Susan have been tweaked until we both like them. I tried a recipe for chocolate banana bread last week that could accomplish world peace with a few adjustments, and I’ve also succeeded with sesame chicken and rainbow salad recipes from Budget Bytes (plus Brussels sprouts, and one very cheeky artichoke). Tonight I’m taking a crack at Mom’s butternut squash soup. If I have signature dishes, they are: for Derek, chicken; for Providence, under-filled Barbara bars; and for Mom, mandatorily, pie.
Food’s social importance is something you hear about all the time, but nothing illustrates it better than the signature recipe; and it’s a phenomenon I link to pie already, because of my Great Grandma Margaret. I didn’t know her long, and she wasn’t cooking when I did, but she was the original pie chef in the family, a legend for good reason, and a member of that mysterious subset of people who would rather die with their knowledge than give up a secret. One recipe she gave my mom (read: her own granddaughter) was, intentionally, in error, and it took years to get the correct correction out of her. Said granddaughter was also literally blindfolded when brought to the secret Gurney blackberry patch: no one living today knows the location. It’s sad, baffling maybe, but I admire that protectiveness over reputation. People still talk about her food. She probably knew that a person is far more memorable after they feed you. “By their fruits ye shall know them.”
OTHER UPDATES: THE SKY IS CRACKING OPEN A COLD ONE, SO I’M PLANNING TO ORDER WEDDING PHOTOS TOMORROW BECAUSE MY SCRAPBOOK IS MY WINTER PROJECT. I REPEAT: IT’S COLD. I’M COLD. MY FEET ARE COLD. COME QUICKLY, SOUP.