My mother-in-law is known for her mush. Her children, grandchildren and great grandchildren show up bleary-eyed at the breakfast table to enjoy thin strips of congealed cornmeal dredged in flour, fried in bacon grease and smothered with real maple syrup – the good stuff. Beside it there will be salty bacon and hot tea in mugs stained from years of use. It’s a tradition on their farm.
Meanwhile, my mother is known in her neighborhood as “the cookie lady.” If a neighbor has surgery on her cul-de-sac, they are likely to get chocolate chip cookies on the doorstep. As the seasons change, she might swing by a nearby porch with pumpkin cookies dressed in cream cheese frosting, or peanut butter cookies with a Hershey’s kiss secured in the flesh of the cookie. Her pantry almost always has a gallon Ziploc bag filled with cookies. It’s like little pockets of love delivered in a palm size cookie.
My friend John continues his mother’s tradition of baking cheese straws. He made them for her funeral to celebrate her life and now each December he delivers aluminum foil trays filled with a few dozen delicious, peppery cheese straws to his and her friends at Christmas – perfect with a glass of red wine. I never met his mother, but she lives on through his baking.
Steph, my best friend, has delivered hundreds of plates of pumpkin muffins and zucchini bread to my front porch during childbirth, chemo, radiation and even on random Tuesdays. Each bite is a gift. Many of her recipes were handed down by her mother and she keeps them all in a bright recipe box.
I often wonder what my two daughters will remember from my cooking when I’m gone. Most of our time together in the house, especially now that they are teenagers, is in the kitchen. Meals are the foundation of our family – cheesy plates of enchiladas, smoked pork and deviled eggs, plates of brownies and ice cream in bright red bowls. Sausage dip for football games and black bean soup for cold evenings.
Unlike the women before me, I don’t have a favorite cookbook stained with drops of oil and smears of vanilla to pass along. I use the recipe on the back of the aluminum can, or I have apps on my phone like AllRecipes, New York Times Cooking and Paprika (an online recipe collection app). My printed recipes, when I keep them, are stashed in a folder beside the rows of cookbooks that I collected from years of business travel and primarily only a source of inspiration, often to order takeout. My cooking is inconsistent at best. Will my daughters keep these?
The table where we share our meals was my great-grandmother’s table, affectionately known as the Jell-O table that sat on her back porch where the grandkids could enjoy the brightly colored congealed salad without staining the white linens in her formal dining room. Like John’s mom, I never met her either, but I feel connected to her through this antique oak table and the stories that have been shared with me from my dad and his brothers and sisters.
We don’t have the Sunday tradition of roast or ham surrounded by family. Or pancakes on Saturday mornings. Or, pizza on Friday nights. Meals aren’t planned out days in advance and are frequently thrown together after long days of school, work, doctor and volunteer obligations. For years, depending on my treatments, dinners have been dropped on our doorstep – chicken pot pie, pasta dishes, mashed potatoes and fresh fruit. We never knew what might show up.
But regardless of where our food came from, when we sit down at the table for dinner, just the four of us, we bow our heads and give thanks to God for our blessings. Grateful for the time together, the moment to reflect on our day and plan the next. And, while my legacy from the kitchen might not be a specific dish or routine meal, that taking the time to eat dinner sitting with those we love and pausing to say grace at the end of each day is a part of my legacy. That’s my best recipe.
Ann Camden is a proud mother of two high school seniors and a recovering public relations executive. She has been living with MBC since 2016 and spends much of her days volunteering, advocating and figuring out her next meal. She lives in Raleigh, NC with her husband, Jeff.