“When it comes to making gravy, there are two kinds of people,” I said to my 10-year-old grandson this past Christmas. “Flour people and cornstarch people. We’re cornstarch people.”
At some point last year, I decided he was old enough to learn how to make gravy. Now at family dinners and holiday gatherings, he’s called to the kitchen to go to work. A roast beef is removed from the Dutch oven handed down to us from my late wife Monica’s aunt and all that goodness in the bottom of the pan is transformed into something even better.
Then it’s poured into a ceramic pitcher, a family-proclaimed “gravy pitcher” that belonged to Monica’s grandmother.
During the recent cold, dark, wet days of early winter in the Seattle area, I’ve been thinking about gravy and other recipes, dishes and dinner favorites that have been handed down from one generation to the next.
And I’ve come to realize there’s more to a family’s comfort food than just the food. There are memories, too. There are stories. Histories. Legends. It seems a family tree can have recipes flapping from nearly every branch.
Sharing them, or at least talking about them, is a custom, a tradition, an obligation, that I want to continue so that my grandchildren know something about my parents and grandparents, about my childhood, about my life more than half a century ago. And about their grandma’s parents and grandparents, her childhood and her life.
My grandkids seem amazed and amused that as a child, I never tasted sweet and sour pork or a quesadilla. On the other hand, I know they’ll never taste a “true” Cool Whip chocolate cake because at some point (my family thinks), the company altered Cool Whip’s ingredients.
And my grandchildren will never know the hot, greasy, sweet goodness of my grandmother’s homemade doughnuts, fried in lard (yes, lard) with bacon fat added for extra flavor.
I explain to them that I was born and spent my early formative years in Iowa (proud origin of the Snickers salad, which includes cubed Granny Smith apples, Cool Whip and chunks of Snickers bars), while in Seattle they have grown up eating Japanese dumplings.
With all this in mind — and before I have to stop and go get a snack — there are a few points to keep in mind when cooking and baking with your children and grandchildren, your nieces and nephews. First, a battered recipe box or nearly falling apart cookbook is a wonderful conversation starter and a source for an old favorite dish or dessert you haven’t thought of in years.
Kids soon learn that knowing how to cook (and bake) is a practical skill with delicious rewards. Children in a kitchen mean more of a mess, but it’s a happy mess, a memorable mess, a mess your children or grandchildren may one day be describing to their children or grandchildren as they try to duplicate your famous family recipe.
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