The first thing I hear when I come home from work is “What’s for dinner?”
I was going along happily, cooking the way I do—which is to say winging it—when Gabe, my 15-year-old, got mad. I had made a favorite dish of his, chicken cacciatore, for friends and everyone loved it. So a few weeks later, he asked me to make it again. I didn’t remember exactly how I had prepared it, and I didn’t think it would make a difference if I made it in a roasting pan in the oven instead of in a casserole on the stove; or if I didn’t brown the chicken pieces first; or thicken the sauce with flour. In fact, it was a perfectly fine dish. It just wasn’t Gabe’s idea of chicken cacciatore.
“Mom! Why can’t you make it the same way every time? Why do you have to mess around with a good thing?”
Why is because for the everyday food I cook I rarely use an actual recipe, or, if I do, I inevitably change something. I can’t be expected to run out to the store just because Mark Bittman says I need a teaspoon of ground coriander. I can’t be expected to remember exactly how I made dinner three weeks ago. I have other things on my mind!
Gabe had had it with my excuses. He recalled that I had put together a cookbook years before when we were living in Seattle and I was missing my family and our holiday gatherings. That book documented a lot of recipe–s that had been handed down from my grandmother, parents, aunts and uncles. “Why don’t you write your recipes down so you don’t forget?”
This seemed like a good idea, and indeed I was getting a little frustrated with my lack of organization, not to mention my deteriorating memory. He knew he had me and went in for the kill: “You should make a cookbook for me and Miriam, so we can have your recipes when we move out of the house.”
My mother has a favorite tale about her mother, Carrie, who emigrated from Poland in 1909 at age 15 to Fall River, Massachusetts. My grandmother’s English was charmingly fractured, and my grandfather–known for his wicked humor–teased her mercilessly. I remember him by calling my parents each July 18 to wish them a “Happy University.”
My grandmother (Babci, in Polish) did not cook from a recipe book, and when my mother would ask her how to make a dish, Babci would always reply “oh, you put a little of this, a little of that.” Still, she felt that to be truly American, she should use a cookbook. This impressed my mother until she caught Babci referring to a cookbook that was upside down!
The best recipes–the ones of memory–are never written down and sometimes we have to go to great lengths to recreate them. My other grandmother, Rose De Lima Dallaire Fortier, was famous for her French-Canadian tourtiere (pork pie), which she no doubt learned
from her own mother. When asked, she supplied a recipe, but it never turned out quite right. Finally, I decided to spend the day with her making pork pies and discovered some techniques and ingredients she simply forgot to mention. Still, it has taken me 25 years and some considerable kitchen experience to get it right. Time and practice, two things she had in abundance, were the secret ingredients. This is her upside-down legacy to me.
So in future no one has to pry this stuff out of me, I’ve started to document recipes and I’m posting them to this blog as I go. Many of the posts contain memories or stories about the foods and events that mean so much in a family. I hope my readers will enjoy it–and maybe send me some of your own recipes.