All of us would like to ensure family traditions live on long after we are gone. One way to do that is with recipes. Few things bring people together like good food lovingly prepared and shared. Think back to your fondest childhood memories of holidays. Can you name the food on the table? I can for nearly every meal we had at either grandparent’s house. My father’s mother made the absolute best fried chicken in the world and a coconut cake that I would walk to Texas for. My mom’s mother made the lightest, sweetest homemade rolls that I’ve ever had and she could make pie crust that made you not care what kind of pie it was, just give you some more of that buttery, flaky crust. Can you tell I like sweets? It’s sad but true, I will pass on steak anytime for cake!
I digress though. Go to the person in your family who makes the dishes you love and ask them for their secrets. Don’t just get the recipe; ask them to teach you to make it. Anyone can measure ingredients and use heat to render them edible. I’m talking about people who know that if you “work the dough” too much it will be tough. I’m talking about cooks who can tell by the color of the sweet potatoes when they are candied perfectly. I’m talking about the hands that can mix an egg and buttermilk in a little “well” in the center of a dishpan full of flour and wind up with the perfect amount of biscuit dough for one pan of biscuits. Delicious, light as air, fall out of the pan biscuits. Beg them to show you the things they have learned from years of doing it over and over. Ask them why they use a glass to cut their biscuits instead of “dropping” them. Find out why they prefer one brand of flour over another. Watch as they cut up their vegetables, pay attention to how much bacon grease they put in a pot of butterbeans for flavor, offer to help put up pears or beans, bring jars over and learn to make jelly from mayhaws.
Look carefully at the pots and pans they use. Most good cooks have pots they love. Well seasoned black iron can’t be beat for frying eggs or pork chops, skillets make the perfect cornbread too. Some cooks swear by copper anytime they are cooking sugar and even rookies know that you need a deep, even heating, thick walled, stainless pot for making gumbo. Most cooks have favorite pots and dishes they use for specific recipes. Watch how they mix things, do they use specific utensils or bowls? Do they measure everything or do they add ingredients with the confidence gained from a lifetime of experience? Do they have a recipe they follow and if so, where did they get it? Was it their mother’s? Did a long ago neighbor teach them to make some exotic dish? Is something they make a carryover from “the old country”? Learn all you can and memorialize it. Write it down, set your phone to record a video as they teach you, take pictures, keep all the evidence you can to remind you of why the recipe is so special.
It’s easy to go to the store and buy frozen biscuits (they are good!) and there are cookbooks and online recipe sites that can tell you how to make almost anything. But once someone is gone there are no more chances to get that special pancake recipe or ask exactly which spices to use when making bread and butter pickles. More than the recipe though is the time you get with that person. Time is the most valuable commodity any of us have. Use yours wisely and ensure that future generations have the same traditions you cherish. Making cookies with your grandchild will be all the more special if you are using the same recipe and cutters that your grandmother used when she taught you to bake. Don’t let the opportunity pass you by; even if you only use the recipe(s) once a year, you will never regret having them. And every good southern cook should have at least one signature dish…what will yours be?