Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Secret Family Recipes

"I stirred it with my finger."

That was my grandfather's standard response to, "How'd you make this taste so good?"

Pawpaw was a character, the scene stealing kind. The one that upstages the leading man just with the twinkle in his blue eyes.

He had a few stages he perfomed on, like the back of the chapel after Sunday services where he spun yarns for his friends. Or holding forth to his grandchildren from the comfort of his favorite armchair, cushioned in 1970's era putrid green velvet upholstery, a lazy dachshund on his lap.

But the big show? That was in the kitchen. He threw one dish towel over his shoulder, tucked another in his belt, and he set about making magic and sprinkling it with stories.

I spent every spare penny I had from my part time job in college to spend one week each spring with him in Louisiana. I sat at the breakfast bar while he puttered at the kitchen island, one minute showing me how to add rice to water without measuring it, the next telling me about how he made his ship's captain a turtle soup when he served in the Navy in the South Pacific during World War II.

I watched him like a hawk, asking questions all along the way. "How much file are you putting in the gumbo?"

He shrugged and held out a palmful of the finely ground sassfrass leaves. "This much."

All of his measurements were like that. Touch rice with the tip of your middle finger and add water until it reaches the joint of your first knuckle. That's how much it needs. Roux should be cooked until it's the color of an old brown penny. There's no so such thing as too much onion in a jambalaya.

Once I convinced him to let me try making a jambalaya while he supervised. He restrained himself from yanking his favorite wooden spatula from my hand and doing it himself, but it was a near thing. Especially when I grabbed a teaspoon to measure out the pepper.


"What are you doing?" he asked. "Hold out your hand." And he dumped a bunch of pepper in it. "Now pour that into the teaspoon." I did. It was exactly enough to fill it. "That's how you measure when you cook Cajun," he said. "It's done when your eyes, nose and tongue say it is, not the recipe."

I can do it now, but it sure makes it hard to share a recipe with a friend. "How much red pepper do I add?" I don't know. However much it needs.

No matter how many times I watched him and wrote down exactly what he said and did, my gumbo never did come out the same. "Pawpaw, mine's not as good as yours," I would complain in one of my many phone calls to him.

His raspy chuckle would come over the line. "That's because I have to stir it with my finger."

Maybe that's the trick. Or maybe it was a Spanish language movie that revealed the truth. I remember watching Like Water for Chocolate in college, sitting on my sofa in stunned silence as the credits rolled, gripped in an epiphany. It was not the spices or the cooking time or any secret ingredients thrown in when my back was turned.

It was a bit of Cajun voodoo he magicked on his creations that somehow infused each dish with a little bit of him.

I guess he told the truth about his magic ingredient. I know what it means when I say, "I stirred it with my finger." It means, "I made it extra special because I love you."

This post is an entry for Scribbit's Write Away contest.

28 comments:

Luisa Perkins said...

Lovely--very evocative. You should win!

I cook like that, too. It took a ton of work to write out measured amounts of ingredients I usually just toss in.

Becca said...

I'm all shivery.

And hungry for gumbo, somehow.

Dirt Clustit said...

I really liked this one

CaJoh said...

I think my grandfather used to put his finger in his beer to calm the foam down.

Great way of combining cooking and family traditions into the same story.

Hope you win something— good luck.

LisAway said...

Magic. Lovely, Melanie. I love your grandfather.

Erin said...

What a nice story. I always tell my kids I added love to whatever I made and that's why it tastes so good.

Kristina P. said...

Love it! I can just picture him in the kitchen.

Annette Lyon said...

What LisAway said.

CountessLaurie said...

Great story. I can picture it now!
Love the voodoo magic!

Scribbit said...

"stirred it with my finger" :) I love that--sure gives an image of her.

Linda said...

That is so true! I think he left something out on purpose! Ya know for years Uncle Mark tried to get that hot sauce recipe from him but, your grandfather would NEVER give it up until one time when he was here in IL or a visit I sweet talked him, which was not that hard to do, and he could not TELL me how to do it-----so we had to get all the bowls, pots, spoons.....out and set them up while he went thru the motions of making the hot sauce and I took notes!!!!! Trust me, I did not leave one "finger stir" out of the recipe! Thanks for blogging about him today---I really miss him!

nano*ink said...

charming indeed...

charrette said...

I LOVE this! I reminds me so much of my own grandpa...a master storyteller and a master chef. Thank you for sharing this with the rest of us!

charrette said...

p.s. I had a mission companion who made the simplest food taste SO delicious. I asked her once what her secret was, and she said, "Tu sabes, hermanita, es que siempre cocino con amor." (TR: It's because I always cook with love!) I KNOW that love was the secret ingredient in my grandparents cooking, too.

wonder woman said...

love. it.

And now I miss my own grandpa....

Kimberly said...

That was beautiful. Truly.

Stephanie Humphreys said...

Beautiful! Made me think of my own grandmother.

Courtney B said...

I can't tell you how many times he told my sister and me the "turtle soup" story. The funny thing is that I believed him. I believed everything he said, no matter how far-fetched. Thanks for the memory. It's exactly how I remember him.

Amateur Steph said...

This is a lovely post. I love it when you write about your family and memories; it is some of your best writing.

Debbie said...

This post should win that contest. I love it. The beautiful family connections and the love. Just great.

Fiauna said...

I checked out Scribbits earlier today, wondering what I would write if I entered the contest. This is perfect! I loved it! Great job.

April said...

What is it about grandpas that steals our hearts? Thanks for reminding me how much my grandpa meant to me. I lost him 36 years ago.

CHERRANNE said...

Yummy goodness in this post. I loved it!

Kazzy said...

Sorry, that previous comment was from me. I let my buddy use my laptop and she hadn't signed out! btw... Your Louisiana roots sound so fascinating!

Me said...

I clicked over from Erin's Blog (If You Give a Mom a Moment)....

I love this story. Very well told and written..I can just envision the sights and sounds. You are a very talented writer. What a GREAT story to be able to tell.

Amber Lynae said...

I love the post, and the imagery. And it makes me laugh about the measuring, because I was making cookies with my sister this past weekend, and she complains that she can't make them the same. so she sat there helping me while I just start pooring in a little of this and enough of that. Yeah the hard part is definitely sharing the recipe.

Eowyn said...

Loved this post. That's all.

L.T. Elliot said...

I love, love, LOVE this post! It is so beautiful. I love the memories and the flavors and the magic. It's just how I feel about my grammy's cooking. =]