Secret Recipes of Connection
In my life, many sweet moments with friends and family are often accompanied by food. It’s a sensory contribution to any gathering, conversation, celebration, or campfire. It can act as an effective bridge, connecting strangers and friends alike. It’s flexible enough to be the centerpiece of an assembly, or an addendum to an event. Either way, it can serve a purpose well beyond satisfying hunger.
Food is a powerful form of communication. It’s like a language with thousands of dialects and multiple interpretations, bearing the signature of its preparer. Whether delicious or disappointing, we form expectations and preferences through the nuances of this tasty language, sending and receiving messages on multiple levels that affect our human experience.
The Food Mood Connection and the Family
As the oldest grandchild on my mother’s side and the oldest granddaughter on my dad’s, the social messages and food “privileges” given me ranged from table setting to preparing, and the lessons did not go unlearned. A moment of gratitude to my mother who, for reasons that didn’t make sense at the time, decided to have a day each week where she insisted my sister and I help her bake assorted goodies. The novelty of this was lost upon me as I sheepishly told my high school friends why I couldn’t hang out each Tuesday. My dramatic displeasure with “having” to go home and make cookies or bread was met with dumbfounded stares. They thought I was kidding. I rolled my eyes as I said it was true. The next thing I knew, I was getting requests for cookies, and hearing wishes for moms that would make bread once a week. Suddenly I had a following of BFFs (best-foodie-friends) who were more than happy to consume any yummy surplus.
Baking-day seemed to coincide with soup-night, and I knew after the flour and sugar had been put away, I’d be peeling potatoes, cutting chicken, or boiling chili beans for dinner. Only after, were we able to indulge in the warm pan of brownies that had just been pulled from the oven. When I got older, being assigned a “dinner night” was no surprise, which made the transition of cooking for myself, and my own family pretty effortless.
My personal food dialect was cultivated through informal family training, 4-H, and Jr. High home economics, giving me a well-stocked cupboard to pull from. I refined my skills and got creative by combining random ingredients or experimenting with spices and flavors. My knowledge grew as I watched grandma make rolls and garden veggie dishes, my mother-in-law craft breads and pies, and my other grandma masterfully fashion tiny fruits from her authentic German marzipan at Christmas time.
Although I could say by some definition, the hours invested in cooking and baking might equal those of an advanced degree, the fact that meal preparation was considered a dutiful fulfillment of my role as a female, downplayed any over-glorification. But what the years of observation, preparation, and dining did give me was a keen sense of protocol surrounding food – particularly the recipes. And it was during these formative years I noticed something curious. It typically began when a comment was made about a particular dish, and the discussion would shift away from the fare, to its creation. Inevitably, someone would ask for the recipe.
The Food Mood Connection and Sharing Recipes
I noticed the request was not always taken favorably. This puzzled my young mind, and added a new dimension to the language I was learning. Why wouldn’t somebody want to share information on something that was just complimented? Especially when it was their handiwork? It seemed like a flattering request, but the resistance was obvious. I watched dismissal, dignity and egos mix…sometimes gracefully and other times, not so much.
Often, a recipe was openly shared, and genuine gratitude was exchanged between giver and receiver. I knew there was something greater than a list of ingredients that had been traded; it was magical, and I sensed it had the potential to spread.
I made my first recipe book in elementary school. Each student brought a recipe from home, and suddenly I had pages of new ideas and exciting goodies. I also realized recipe requesting was not limited to my family. It was everywhere. Group recipe books, family exchanges, or community potluck shares all played a part in expanding the culinary language.
I haven’t discovered a definite set of rules defining whether a request is fulfilled or not, but it’s apparent the choice is based on the individual. The welcome mat hasn’t always been laid out for me either, as I was told grandma’s bread recipe and my mother-in-law’s sugar cookie and fudge recipes were off limits. I was also surprised to see my mother guard the little cards to her caramel and chocolate sauces, as well as her celebrated clam chowder. At first, I thought I’d be given the recipes after some passage of time, but that was not the case. So Betty Crocker and I became friends, and I made her version instead.
I had heard stories of lost recipes, and even deathbed revelations, but my family history of coveted “delectables” lacked that kind of drama, so I was surprised to learn my daughter-in-law’s great grandmother’s wassail recipe held such a tale. I listened as Natalie told me how her grandmother was given the list of ingredients for the favorite family drink, only because great-grandma knew she was dying. I stood in that cute girl’s kitchen watching her attend the simmering pot, looking forward to my cupful of the clandestine drink.
A few minutes later, I was sipping the precious wassail, while making my mother-in-law’s sugar cookies, and shook my head over the irony. It felt like a double-edged knife. On one hand there was the perceived value of the coveted food creations, and on the other, a heady ridiculousness. I wondered what had been gained, if anything, from this practice of withholding information. It did less for creating connection than it did in generating value, and I doubted the sensibility of it.
In that moment, I wanted to do something different. I had a full-on, radical desire to alter history. My recipes were going to be accessible. And rolled out in front of me, complete with cookie cutters and steaming spiced cider, were the makings of an exchange with my son’s wife. So I started a conversation. We talked about life, recipes, food, family, our pets, and unfortunate meal mishaps. And it was sweeter than either secreted cookie or cup. James Beard once said, “Food is our common ground, a universal experience”. And in our efforts to recreate a great food experience, we often ask for the recipe.
Now don’t get me wrong, keeping a stealthy guard over special food recipes can add to the enchantment. I admit I look forward to times a treasured dish is made. But when an honest request is denied, it can resemble a fallen soufflé.
It’s true, there is value added to something that is not easily acquired, and I understand how mystery can create intrigue. But so can sharing. With an act of gifting, I believe legacy is created. Legacy is defined as 1. A gift by will 2. Something handed down or received from an ancestor or predecessor.
We create our own legacy when we share ourselves with others.
Have you ever noticed how a card with identical ingredients and instructions can be given to a number of people to make, and for some inexplicable reason, you can tell a difference in the outcome? It can be puzzling when the only variable is the person making it, yet uniqueness is created, even if it’s subtle. We want mom’s macaroni & cheese, or aunt Jen’s chocolate cake. Everyone knows that Sarah makes incredible biscuits, and your best friend’s apple pie should be awarded a medal.
The point is, you matter. Your touch, your flair, and your salt shaking style…it all makes a difference. That is worth celebrating and sharing. So do it. Make those chocolate chip cookies or Buffalo wings, and know, that just because you did it, you’ve affected that dish and those who eat it. Pass along your legacy just by being you. You are the factor that cannot be replicated or replaced. You are the secret that kneads the bread your way, or adds the extra dash of cinnamon where others don’t. Savory or sweet, you spice things up because of who you are. So pass along the age-old casserole to those who would love to make it and revel in the reality that it won’t be the same, because it can’t. Embrace the joy of knowing the value of grandma’s old-fashioned taffy will remain, because she made it her way.
Cook, play, laugh, converse and speak an ancient language with those you dine with. Create connections. Create your legacy. Share your recipes, share your secrets, and take a turn stirring the batter (or the pot). Bake up some sweet moments with family and friends and know you’re creating magic.
Sharing My Favorite Recipe
Therefore, in the spirit of crafting a legacy and creating connections, I am sharing a favorite recipe with you. I was finally granted access to my mom’s caramel sauce. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do!
This guarded recipe took me years to acquire – apparently a family secret. We use it to top ice cream or dip apples in. Cook a little longer and it makes great caramels too!
1 ½ cup white sugar
¾ cup brown sugar
1-cup corn syrup
½ cup evaporated milk
½ cup butter
1 TB vanilla
On a stovetop, heat sugars, syrup, and butter until it comes to a boil. Slowly add milk and cook. (Use candy thermometer or cold water in a cup to test occasionally – do NOT cook to soft ball stage)