Illustrations by María Alconada Brooks
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For many of us, food and memory are inextricably connected. We asked food writers and cookbook authors to share the dishes that evoke some of their fondest memories. The diversity of responses is as delightful as a good potluck, and some women offered responses that might surprise you. For instance, Kim-Joy, a former “Great British Bake Off” contestant known for her baked goods, shared an anecdote about boiled rice and buttery carrots, and Melissa Hartwig Urban, co-creator of the original Whole30 program, recalled her mother’s chocolate chip walnut cake. These eats offer glimpses into women’s worlds. We hope you dig in, and enjoy.
I can’t relate when people reminisce about their grandmother’s recipes: the homemade pasta lovingly rolled out by Nonna’s hands, cornbread from Mawmaw’s iron skillet or Nana’s Sunday chicken and dumplings.
My own Grandma Pearl was a terrible cook, known chiefly for the spaghetti she made in a stovetop coffee percolator. I can so clearly picture the orange hue of tomato-cream as it went from Pyrex to plate, after she cooked the thin noodles in the glass carafe.
Pearl’s square of kitchen space in Passaic, N.J., was barely large enough for one person to navigate, but roomy from my perspective, given that grandma was tiny and I was a child. Even now, a foot taller and with three children of my own, I can envision her fridge, stocked with jewel-green Jell-O salad made especially for me. Hanging on the wall to the left of the sink, I can see a blue-green study of water lilies, one of the best of many watercolors created by her own hands.
While Pearl was a terrible cook, she was a terrific grandma, a rank solidified by the Stella D’oro Swiss Fudge cookies that filled her narrow pantry. Those cookies look like mini sunflowers and bring on the same sense of cheer, their patterned shortbread radiating out from a sealant-smooth disk of fudgy filling. They were a particularly East Coast treat, produced at the time in a factory in the Bronx that was owned by an Italian family (like Grandma’s neighbors, Sadie and Ralph), but loved by observant Jews because they were dairy-free and could be eaten with either milk or meat. For grandchildren, Pearl considered cookies as legitimate a food group as deli pastrami and half-sour pickles (kosher) or scrambled eggs with Taylor ham (definitely not kosher); her trademark line was:
As children of the Depression, Pearl and her sister kept the house running while their mother and father worked at the family’s dry-goods store. Family legend held that Pearl was a terrible cook because her childhood job was cleaning house; her sister did all the cooking. They’re together in a monochrome picture from that era, two little girls with wide eyes and wider grosgrain bows in their hair, maybe 5 and 6 years old. I used to page through the photo album in her living room while she continued the housework that was her obsessive hallmark; vacuuming, dusting, ironing every piece of laundry including underwear. Above the fireplace hung her favorite abstract, an oversized piece full of geometric shapes and oddly devoid of color. She called it “My Kitchen.”
The summer I was 9, I got to stay with Pearl while my older siblings went to camp. She cooked me the Taylor ham for breakfast and the coffeepot spaghetti for dinner; at lunchtime nearly every day we met my grandfather at the Howard Johnson’s restaurant near his florist supply business. I finished every lunch with a jumbo cookie scattered with adorably miniature chocolate chips.
Pearl told me stories, about how she studied painting with Jacob Lawrence in his not-totally-famous-yet days at the New School for Social Research, and how she planned to be an artist — but her father said, “No daughter of mine would live that life!” I can still hear her triumphant voice retelling how she banged the screen door as she walked out. I marveled at her brave defiance. Decades later my mother pointed out,
My family moved across the country soon after my Grandma summer, but I lived about an hour’s drive away from Pearl in my early 20s; my husband was in school and I was a reporter at the daily paper. It wouldn’t have occurred to me to ask my parents’ permission to follow a career, and I considered the kitchen a pleasure, not a prison. I also wasn’t quite removed enough from childhood self-centeredness to realize that her obsessiveness was relaxing into vagueness and then fading into the depths of Alzheimer’s. By the end, when I would stop by, the Stella D’oros were still there, but she was not.
It was strange for me to envision her younger self, commanding the stove with the coffeepot pasta, knowing she did not possess the corollary view of the 9-year-old me waiting for dinner. It’s lonely, when I see one of Pearl’s trademark foods, to be the only keeper of those memories.
When we divided Pearl’s paintings after she died, nearly 10 years ago now, I asked for the kitchen lilies.
But there was one more picture waiting for me. I found it only last year, going through boxes at my mother’s house and happening on an unframed fragment of canvas. I don’t know when Pearl painted it, but it was modeled on a photograph, so I like to think she was thinking back on the little girl with unbound brown hair.
My face is blurred, as though the portrait is unfinished or fading away. But I’m wearing my favorite corduroy jacket with wide lapels, the hot orange shade of tomato-cream. I’m running through a row of evergreens as emerald as lime Jell-O. I’m heading straight toward the viewer, as if I’ve been freed.
Co-creator of the original Whole30 program and author of several Whole30 books
“No four words evoke fond childhood memories quite like ‘chocolate chip walnut cake.’ My mom wasn’t big on baking, but once a year, she’d make this dense pound cake in a simple Bundt pan, featuring chopped walnuts and warm semi-sweet chocolate chips on top. My favorite part, though, was the mixture of cinnamon and sugar in the middle of the cake, baked into a thin, crispy ribbon. As my sister and I got older, the cake grew to symbolize family, the holidays and our mother’s love. When I moved out of state, she would come to visit and bake the cake while I was at work. She’d hide it in the microwave, and I’d always pretend to be surprised. Coming home to that smell made it feel like Christmas morning.
I remember as kids, we were always begging my mom for more chocolate chips and a thicker layer of cinnamon and sugar, but she always refused. One year, my sister and I decided to bake the cake for our Friendsgiving celebration — our way. We doubled the chocolate chips and tripled the layer of cinnamon and sugar in the middle. You know what? It wasn’t as good. Mom always knows best.”
Former “Great British Bake Off” contestant and author of “Baking with Kim-Joy”
“My mum doesn’t believe in modern medication, but she does believe in the power of food and good nutrition. Once when I had food poisoning as a child, I remember her cooking for me plain boiled rice with a little soy sauce, with buttery sauteed carrots to the side. I think she saw the plainness of the rice as good for lining my stomach, and the vitamin A from the carrots as good for healing. Such a simple dish, but I remember finding it warming, soothing and delicious. It was everything I needed in that moment, and so it has really imprinted itself in my mind. So now, whenever I have a bit of a cold or I’m feeling a bit run down, I can picture the smells and warmth of that dish perfectly. The buttery sweetness of the carrots, and the soft fluffy rice. Part of me wishes someone would make it for me again, but I don’t know if it ever really would be the same! I think it’s the memory of being cared for in that moment, that I hold on to. Food is so tightly woven with emotions, it’s never just about the food tasting great (though that does help!).”
“One of the most memorable dishes from my childhood is my mom’s pancakes. My parents had never eaten pancakes when they immigrated to the U.S. in the ’80s, but my sister and me — both born and raised in the U.S. attending a school with not a lot of diversity — were obsessed with them. We ate them at diners, at our friends’ houses. So one morning, we asked my mom to make us pancakes. She had no clue how to make a pancake. So she bought a box of Bisquick and adapted the recipe on the back of the box — namely to take out the eggs (we grew up vegetarian, and eggs, to many Indians are considered non-vegetarian) and up the nutrition content with wheat germ. The pancakes she ended up making were perfect. Huge (like, the size of a personal pizza), wholesome and fluffy, served with a generous glug of real maple syrup (Aunt Jemima was strictly banned in our house). These pancakes became legendary among our cousins and our school friends. People still ask me about those pancakes. And every Friday after Thanksgiving, my cousins and I gather in my mom’s kitchen and one by one, she makes us each one of her special eggless pancakes. And it continues to be perfect.”
Author of “Aloha Kitchen: Recipes from Hawai’i”
“Food is love, life and also memories. Every time I grill up a batch Maui-style kalbi short ribs, I’m instantly transported to my boogie-boarding days at Kamaole Beach on the island of Maui. The truth is that I was never a star boogie-boarder and, in retrospect, I was probably only in it for the ribs at the end of the day. You see, the beach was near a spot called Azeka’s Ribs & Snack Shop, and every beach day ended with a pick-up of these famous sweet and tangy short ribs. Much sweeter than any other kalbi short rib, Maui-style ribs are magic in my mind and are nearly revered at this point, especially because Azeka’s Ribs has been closed for many years now. (Just ask anyone who grew up on the island or spent time there in the ’90s.) Over the years, I have battled to re-create them in all their glory, and I think I’ve finally come close. These post-beach sweet-meat ribs still take me back to Kamaole. In fact, I swear I can almost feel the salt-sprayed trade winds blowing through whenever I put them on the grill.”
See Kysar’s recipe for Maui-style kalbi ribs here.
“My earliest memory is the scent of cannelle et vanille: cinnamon and vanilla. My small, 3-year-old hands clutched my Grandmother Miren’s waist as I tottered, tiptoed, on the green stool she had pulled up beside her. She was my mother’s mother, a pastry chef who was rarely far from the kitchen. She would spend hours there, with me at her side, pasteurizing the raw milk she bought from the dairy up the street. The pot would simmer on the stovetop, and the cream that would rise to the top was scooped out and spread heavily atop toast, finished with a sprinkle of cinnamon. Then, there was the stack of bakery-sized chocolate bars that she chopped with all her will and strength with an ancient, too-large-for her-hands knife. The chocolate melted in a bain-marie — sometimes flavored with coffee, sometimes not — turned into the moistest cake, perfuming the kitchen air with its bitterness.”
See Goyoaga’s recipe for chocolate, olive oil and citrus cake here.