The day before I was married, my maternal grandmother gave me two things: an envelope containing recipes that she deemed essential, and a short (very short) talk on contraception. Delivered simultaneously, these were my grandmother’s two keys to marriage.
Mema was a well-bred Tennessee lady whose life had seen gentility and material success as well as abandonment and abuse. In the half-century she lived in the North, she (quite intentionally) never lost her sorghum-sweet drawl. Her large late-Victorian home, where my mother and her sisters had grown up, was a world of contradictions: strict rules were layered with self-indulgent freedoms. The rules were mostly physical and emotional; the freedoms related mostly to food.
For example, we were not permitted to run in the house (lest we “raise dust.”) But on the other hand, the living room’s mahogany end tables held secret stashes of M&Ms. Occasionally we would have roast beef dinner in the formal dining room table (under which was a secret floor button by which, the hostess could, with a discreet tap of the toe, summon the kitchen help.) My appetite for dinner had invariably been dampened by the afternoon binge on Ruffles and Mema’s Philly Cheese Dip.
In retrospect, I believe that the food in my grandmother’s house, especially the snacks, was the one area of her life where she actually could exert control. She had a difficult husband and many appearances to maintain. The affection she had for her grandchildren balanced other unhappinesses. She was always passing on personal maxims (“Don’t frown, l’il dahlin’. You’ll get wrinkles”), but the contraception talk was the first and only time Mema ever spoke to me of truly personal matters. That day she fought tears, whether of embarrassment or love, I don’t know. Probably both.
The handwritten recipes she gave me as I entered married life are annotated with comments, underscored words and exclamation points. I honor Mema and so many of her friends—whom I knew but who are also now long gone—when I go through my recipe box and see Amelia’s Carrots (“Good!”), Del’s Chicken Bake (“Good. Serves 8 to 10 or recipe can be cut in half!!”), and Old-Fashioned Custard Pie (“Second pie will freeze well, or you can share one with a friend.”)
More than mementos, these recipes are alive with the spirit of my grandmother and the stories of her life. When I use them—especially if I use one of her bowls or saucepans—I invoke her memory. Every once in a while a smell will take me back to her kitchen. The recipes represent an apostolic succession of women, of which my grandmother, my mother, my sisters and I, and my daughter are members. She is a key figure of my girlhood, but now I know her as a woman.
Mema’s Philly Cream Cheese Dip, with her annotations
One package Philadelphia cream cheese, left out to soften. Break up and mash with a fork until creamy. Add 4 tbs. lemon juice (or less, to taste.) Add small amount of milk (this may be very soft, but it will stiffen up when chilled again.) Add enough anchovy paste to taste! (Can always add more.) Refrigerate.
My notes: Cream cheese can be microwaved slightly, rather than the old-school “left out to soften.” This is helpful if you’re in a hurry to get bingeing. More lemon! More anchovy paste than you think! Deeply-wavy Ruffles are a must. Eat yourself sick. Repeat.