The last time I saw Grandma Shirley was 20 years ago. I was a teenager when she passed away--old enough to remember how her fine silver hair framed her elegant features, the bright pink smile she painted on with a tube of lipstick after meals, and how she called me Darling, but too young to have nothing more than fragmented memories of our time together.
The family cookbook that Ryan and I received as a wedding gift has helped to piece some of those memories back together. Ryan and I often find ourselves paging through it to look more at the pictures than the recipes. We start to reminisce about the relatives whom the other has never met, and never will, and before long, some forgotten memory comes out that hasn't been thought of in years.
One thing I recalled about Grandma Shirley, for example, was her glamour. You can tell by the pictures in the book: Grandma in front of the Eiffel Tower, Grandma in red-sequined evening wear, oh, and there's Grandma sitting in between her totally unstylish granddaughters (that's Angie in her band-aid-mending-broken-heart sweatshirt, which I'm sorry to say became a hand-me-down, and me in some snazzy unicorn overalls and wearing barrettes with ribbons cascading in my hair).
I've also thought more about her in the context of food. Frankly, there are no recipes from Grandma Shirley in the book, which makes sense because I remember more about the catered parties she threw than meals she cooked.
I should say here that my mom has told me that Grandma Shirley was a great cook, and I even saw evidence of this when I found her dog-eared copy of The Settlement Cookbook, a popular collection of recipes for Jewish immigrants, last year as we cleaned out their apartment after my grandpa passed away.
In fact, I remember one tasty snack that she made in her white-tiled sun-filled kitchen, hamburger sliders. She'd pop two of them in the toaster oven at a time as I waited, so antsy for the toaster to ding that as soon as it did, I opened the oven door and with a squirt of ketchup on top, shoveled the salty open-faced patties in my mouth, ready for two more.
While I am so lucky to have my other grandma still with me, the ageless Grandma Pearl, Ryan only has his memories to go on. When we had a crazy blizzard this winter (yes, THE blizzard in Chicago that gave me an excused absence from work and created absolute chaos on Lake Shore Drive), he wanted to make a favorite recipe from his childhood. A recipe from his Grandma Inez, who lived in rural Michigan and, rather unconventionally, owned a bar in town but still had time to bake.
As the wind howled and the thundersnow thundered, Ryan and I hunkered down in the kitchen and channeled Grandma Inez and her cookies (prefaced in the cookbook as "a sure fire way to melt Ryan's heart").
Heretofore known as Grandma Cookies, these pillowy, chewy mounds of oatmeal raisin were there at the beginning of Ryan's visits to her home, and gone by the time he left. And when Grandma Inez visited Ryan's family, Grandma Cookies came with her, only to disappear (usually in Ryan's belly), by the time she went home.
We made about 5 dozen cookies that night and probably ate close to three quarters of them, only saving the remaining ones to fortify ourselves for some serious shoveling the next day. And while we had to tinker with the recipe a bit, mainly to keep them in the oven much longer than the recipe called for, I saw a deeply satisfied look on Ryan's face.
But after we had eaten probably half the batch, he suddenly grew quiet and said something heartbreaking. He said that with every cookie he ate, the taste of his grandma's cookies faded more and more.
That is a risk we take when we make the recipes of those who are no longer with us. Can they ever truly taste the same as they did at Grandma's? I don't think so. I know that I could never recreate those hamburger sliders. I don't even remember exactly what they tasted like, just that they were so good and only Grandma could make them that way.
I'm not saying that we shouldn't try to make our family recipes because they couldn't possibly taste the same. Just the opposite in fact. If the trade off is that making an old family recipe helps us to remember those who are no longer with us, I'm willing to take that risk.
2 cups raisins
2 cups sugar
1 cup shortening
4 cups oatmeal
4 cups flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup water
Put the raisins in a pan and cover with one cup of boiling water (or slightly more). Let raisins sit in the water until the remaining ingredients are ready. Separately, cream together the sugar and the shortening. Then add in the eggs, oatmeal, flour, baking soda, salt, and vanilla. Stir together and then add the raisins and water. Drop a tablespoon of the batter on a cookie sheet. Bake at 350 until the cookies are lightly brown and almost firm when pressed in the center (about 6-9 minutes; then rotate the sheet for another 6-9 minutes for even browning).
Makes 5 dozen and a happy husband!