Poems & Essays

19 Oct

The Family Cookbook

General/Column 2 Responses

“Noooo! Not a family cookbook!”

My daughter’s home economics teacher had no idea what havoc she had brought into my life.   To Emily’s teacher, it was a great assignment–create individual, family cookbooks by assigning each student to bring in seven beloved family recipes.

Seven family recipes.

I do not own any family recipes. I don’t have a single recipe passed on from another generation. My family does not cook. We read. We eat, of course, but by the barest minimal effort. Following a recipe requires skills we do not possess.

Don’t assume my mother’s home lacked cookbooks. Classic texts from Betty Crocker and Fannie Farmer sat on our kitchen shelf. But to my mother, cookbooks were to be devoured like novels or travel guides. Leave a book and cook instead? Never.

My father, a Navy cook, was the closest we had to a chef. Growing up, Dad would occasionally make Sunday family dinners, mess-hall style. There was chicken-ala-king and something he affectionately called Gobbledygook. To this day, I can’t tell you what was in that dish, but I suspect it had something to do with mayonnaise.

When Emily’s teacher explained the assignment, I knew what she wanted–family specialties lovingly handwritten on 3-by-5 recipe cards, with cute flowers lining the border. These mythical cards would list ingredients in two neat columns, dutifully followed by a brief paragraph of instruction. The card might be a bit worn, but not tattered. Once used, it would return to its place of honor in the family recipe box.

In my family, cooking instructions come from the back of a frozen pizza box.

My daughter’s project was doomed.

It isn’t that we haven’t tried to make family cookbooks before. It’s just that they’re unmitigated disasters. In kindergarten, Emily’s class shared family recipes for a Mother’s Day gift. Her classmates submitted family favorites–granola goodies, tacos and chocolate-chip cookies. Emily’s offering–grapes.

The kindergarten cookbook fiasco shouldn’t have been a surprise. Not only did my mother lack a culinary interest, but my husband’s mother, a librarian, also preferred books over cooking.

My husband, George, was in the second grade, when he and his classmates created their cookbook and his mother did offer a recipe for pork chops. But while other mothers’ recipes were elaborate, long lists of ingredients and detailed instruction, George’s mom’s got to the point: “Put pork chops in a pan. Pour a can of tomato sauce over them. Put chopped up celery on top. Bake.”

Over the years, I’ve attempted to break this generational pattern. Others have come to my aid. At first, I was given individual recipes. Then I was given cookbooks such as The Absolute Beginners’ Guide to Cooking. After this proved useless, I was given prepared food in plastic containers. Now I get restaurant gift cards.

Yet, I do have one saving grace. I can make bread. It doesn’t happen often, but once or twice a year, I find the courage to bake. When I create a modest loaf, I feel victorious; I dare to believe that our family culinary failures can be reversed.

One morning this past summer, I attempted a loaf of monkey bread. I was baking solo, as Emily has little reason to show interest given my other culinary adventures.

From one of my many neglected cookbooks, I picked a simple recipe for a low-sugar, whole wheat monkey bread. As I was kneading away, Emily wandered by and asked what I was doing. When I told her, she balked at the idea of such fun-sounding bread consisting of whole grain.

A few days later, however, she suggested we make monkey bread again, but insisted we make it her way – with lots of sugar and refined, white flour. I was surprised, but figured Emily was motivated by the thought of the bread’s sugary icing. I agreed. We made the bread, but I didn’t think much more about it.

The other day, I nervously asked Emily if she had figured out any of the seven family recipes she needed to submit for her class project.

“Heating up sausage,” she said.

I wanted to point out that “heating up” wasn’t really a recipe, but I kept quiet. At least she could serve the warm pork with our fabulous family grapes.

But then she added, “I also want to put in the recipe for monkey bread, the good kind, not the kind with whole wheat.”

Really? I was surprised our brief cooking time had made that much of an impression. Yes, our monkey bread, complete with icky- sweet frosting, could become a recipe–a real, handwritten–on-a- card-with-love recipe.

One family recipe down, six to go.

I might just have to buy a pack of recipe cards yet.


Anne Shedden-Willis writes from Melbourne, Florida, where she lives in a three-generation and multiple-pet household. Her essays and fiction work have been published in several publications including the Christian Science Monitor, Centering Corporation Newsletter, and the Santa Fe Review. Her current goal is to complete enough short stories so she can say she has a collection.

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  1. Betsy

    October 19, 2015 at 8:59 pm

    a lively story as I am now cooking with my grandkids. I have two family made cookbooks, I’ll have to get them out.
    Thanks for the reminder

    • Anne Shedden-Willis

      October 20, 2015 at 4:57 pm

      Glad you liked the story, Betsy. My daughter suggested that I write a follow-up to explain that she has now developed cooking skills out of need for survival. There is hope for future generations!


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