The past few days, I have found myself in culinary nostalgia. I still have not determined why this nostalgia has dominated my thoughts as I compose a meal.
The other day, I had a meal planned with chicken accompanied by steamed yellow squash & a side of fruit for my mother Jean. Then I remembered a dish with yellow squash that my ex-mother-in-law Willa used to make.
Willa was not a particularly inventive or creative cook. But what she made well was spectacular. Almost every weekend my ex & I made the journey to spend time with his parents, Willa prepared a corned beef.
As a young woman who several times refused to eat meat – once when my father cut up a deer in the back yard & another time when he sliced the ham so thick that all I saw was the resemblance to human flesh.
Never before encountering Willa had I ever eaten corned beef. I had no desire to do so every time she cooked it. I ate the vegetables & avoided the beef.
One Saturday visit, as Willa’s kitchen was filled with the odor of corned beef, my then father-in-law asked her why she always cooked corned beef, knowing that I did not care for it.
I no longer recall her reply. But I am convinced that her youngest son liked it & she secretly delighted in taunting me.
Dating back to the first meal I shared in her home. Served in the kitchen from the stove. It was not my family scene – everything placed in dishes on the table. I helped my plate & took my seat.
She was furious.
Aren’t you going to prepare your fiancé’s plate?
The question was so outside my experience that I replied the only way my not quite twenty year old self knew how to reply.
He is a grown man. He can prepare his own plate.
Willa made other dishes that still stand out. Nothing from Thanksgivings except for the fact that she favored cakes over pies & there was always an Italian Cream Cake.
But she knew how to fry shrimp. I still have the index card with her recipe.
And she made a really easy dish out of yellow squash, involving sautéed onions & garlic & cheddar cheese.
I made Willa’s yellow squash recipe from memory & my mother Jean loved it.
Eventually I learned to appreciate corned beef – not from Willa. But from my friend Susan Chambless who used Joanne Anderson’s recipe. Corned beef cooked with garlic, potatoes, onions & carrots – spiced with black, green & white peppercorns. The cabbage place on top to steam at the last. And horseradish served on the side.
I have repeated that recipe so many times – something I never would have tried but for the fact that I trusted the culinary talents of Susan Chambless.
Just as I trusted those talents when Susan served me fried dove breasts, held together over a jalapeño strip with a tooth pick. Served with gravy.
Today I went through the note cards I kept in a recipe box during another incarnation & life. I found them in a drawer, held together by a rubber band.
I threw out the ones that caused me to think what were you thinking?
And I ran across Barb Vogt’s recipe for “Cheese Stuffed Zucchini,” written in her own print. While I remember this recipe fondly, given to me by the wife of my then husband’s best friend, I also remembered the trips to Boerne & Comfort & Sister.
I remembered standing up as one of Barb & Doug’s honorary god parents for their first child, Brian Douglas.
And then it struck me.
Culinary nostalgia is not only about remembering the experience of flavors. It is about the memory & reliving sharing with friends & loved ones. It is about stepping outside the box to try something new. It is about bringing closure to times that still haunt you.
Tonight, Jean & I will have grilled Swai fillets & Barb Vogt’s “Cheese Stuffed Zucchini” (a recipe I altered a bit & made my own – in my hubris, I always do that) & a salad for me, fruit for Jean.
I learned something today about culinary nostalgia. Today I remembered the challenges my husband’s mother presented me, even as she supported me on more than one occasion to continue my education