April 28, 2020

Finding Mom in her Recipe Box.

I lost my mom to lung cancer in July of 2015.

We were close and contentious, loving and manipulative, delighted and vexed by one another. I was her only daughter.

Of all the myriad wonderful and damaging things she taught me, cooking was by far my favorite. It was a way for me to feel close to her, it was briefly a competition, and in the end it was a legacy she meant to pass on; a way to keep the family traditions going through me making all the recipes the family enjoyed.

That was a miscalculation on her part, unfortunately. After she died, I did not give one single f*ck about keeping the family together. Instead, I flailed around trying to carry out her will and execute her estate. When that horror show was finished, I packed up my mom and dad (who died seven weeks before my mom) and closed up my heart.

And then the holidays started rolling around and my brother decided celebrating a long-standing family dinner tradition with a bunch of old friends would be a good idea for us. So I dug into the things Mom left me, and I found her recipe box.

It’s an old and scuffed little wooden box stuffed with three-by-five index cards and recipes clipped from magazines. The handwriting is precise and faded. The instructions are written for someone familiar with pinches, dashes, a bit, and not too much. There are dried bits of batter and fingerprints of tomato sauce. A few of them, sadly, are no longer legible.

I knew the recipes my brother wanted: my mom’s Maryland crab soup and her crab cakes, both loved by everyone who ever had the good fortune to eat them.

I put the recipe box on my stove top and took a good long look. I remembered it on Mom’s kitchen counter; its appearance was a harbinger of good times. I flipped through the recipes and found the two I was looking for.

The crab soup recipe isn’t a tough one. I’ve made enough homemade soups to know what I’m doing. Sauté onions, carrots, and celery in butter, then my kitchen begins to smell like hers. Veggie stock and Old Bay seasoning, and I can hear her yelling at my dad to feed the dog. By the time the soup is full of veggies and crushed tomatoes and is ready for the crabmeat, people are starting to arrive and my mom is taking drink orders and passing out appetizers. My family was a raucous one, and mealtime was no different.

My mom never sat for a meal with company. While people enjoyed her crab soup, she was back in the kitchen frying crab cakes. After decades of making the big, fat almost-no-filler cakes, Mom could make them in her sleep. But mine fell apart, so I made them smaller. Soon I had a line in the kitchen; my brother and our friends going through the crab cakes faster than I was making them. I could feel my mom smile.

Much later, after the meal is over, I straightened up the kitchen and returned the little recipe box to a safe but accessible spot in the cabinet, and thanked the Universe for bringing my mom back to me.


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