Our family experienced a heart-breaking tragedy last summer when my brother died unexpectedly. There are many things I miss about him and with each passing day the list gets longer. His wicked sense of humor, his kind smile and easy laugh, his friendship … and his incredible cooking top the list. The man could cook! His entries in Durango’s annual chili cook-off are legendary! Some of my best memories are coming back after a day snow-shoeing, slamming beers, and warming our bellies with his venison chili. The meat-to-veggie ratio, combination of spices, and amount and type of liquid were always perfect. What was his recipe? Oh, a little of this and a little of that. I always thought I’d have more time to watch him make a pot.
He was a successful hunter – both game and mushrooms. Our last foray into the woods together involved a hunt for mushrooms – chanterelles and boleans. My sister joined us for that venture and I think that was the last time the three of us were together alone. After foraging in the forest, we enjoyed a local wine and the most incredible mushroom alfredo sauce I’ve ever eaten. What was his recipe? Oh, a little of this and a little of that. I regret not watching him more closely, but I assumed there would always be another time.
This got me thinking about other people I have lost over the years and missing their cooking. It’s rare that we leave our recipes behind. Our grandmother used to make the weirdest, yet incredibly yummy, dessert: Grapenut pudding. (If you like Grapenuts, you’ll love this. If not, don’t bother.) She did not leave her recipe behind when she passed away. Years later (and before the Internet made finding recipes easy), I came across the recipe in one of those fundraiser cookbooks that are a compilation of parents’ recipes. I couldn’t believe my luck! It linked me with my grandmother and many memories of eating her meals.
When my mother-in-law passed away, I ended up with her recipe box filled with the recipes of my husband’s childhood. While going through the box one day and wondering how I could share them with the rest of the family, I came up with an idea: what if we made a cookbook of her “most-famous” recipes? My husband and I spent many wonderful hours going through the box and he pointed out those that had special memories. (Like all great recipes, many of these favorites have years of smudges and spatterings on them!) Using an internet service, we designed and published Dot’s Recipe Box and gave it out as Christmas gifts. It was so popular we had to arrange for a second printing. Dot’s recipes are being used all over the country by many generations! She would be so very pleased.
My neighbor across the street is a spectacular cook! Her mother was Mexican, and she spent World War II in Mexico City while her father served; her Mexican cooking is legit! For Christmas this year, I asked that she give me cooking lessons instead of a gift. I want to learn how to make the moles and the flan of her childhood. I want to learn what her mother taught her as a young woman. Sure, she could take out a piece of paper and write this down, but I want to watch her make these. We’ll hit up the Mexican markets to find the multiple types of chiles needed for the mole, the Mexican vanilla for the flan, and all of the ingredients she remembers from her youth in Mexico. Then we’ll come back to her house and cook together. What a priceless gift!
I’ll never be able to replicate my brother’s chilis, his alfredo, or his other signature dishes, but I can ensure that my recipes continue on after I’m gone by sharing my knowledge. I encourage you to do the same. Cook together! Cook with your children, your siblings, your parents, your grandparents, your nieces and nephews, and your beloved cousins! Cook with your friends! Cook with your neighbors! These are the memories that will be cherished long after you are gone.