Just like mom used to make

25 May 2015 – Lucky Peach

When I was a kid, my dad would take me and my siblings to make cookies with our Great Aunt Lee in the apartment she kept, a short drive away. My memories of that house are hazy at best. There’s my Aunt Lee sitting in her chair—I have zero memories of Aunt Lee when she’s standing. I remember her huge and white and blue: a big blob of a woman in a white dressing gown with a sharp, bird-like face and even sharper blue eyes, and tight curls of wispy snow-white hair. Her hands were pale, her fingers tapered, her veins blue ropes. In the kitchen, beneath a big window, blindingly white, a tray of cookies—snowballs—fluffy semi-domes of sweet dough dusted with confectioners’ sugar. When I picked them up off the tray, I would almost always get overexcited, breathe in sharply, and choke on the sugar dust.

Aunt Lee was a shiksa from the southern Virginia Blue Ridge Mountains—an anomaly in a family that had been Baltimore Jews until my dad married my Presbyterian mom—and she brought with her a southern lady’s know-how with sweets. Neither of my grandmothers, both women of exceptional humor, grace, and balls, could cook to save her life, which means the few “family recipes” we have mostly came down from Aunt Lee. She died about a decade ago, and no one could make a cookie like her—except sometimes my father, when she was supervising. She shared her recipes orally, not from her recipe book, and almost always misstated some measurement or proportion or ingredient. It wasn’t until she died and my father inherited her cookbook that he finally got the cookies right.

When I asked my dad about why Aunt Lee always gave faulty recipes, he told me, “I don’t think it was deliberate.” Maybe not. These days, my dad’s Christmas cookies are basically identical to hers and completely delicious, but every time I choke on a drift of snowball sugar—which I do almost every time I eat one—I’m still eating an Aunt Lee cookie. Deliberately or not, she managed to make herself immortal, at least for a while, with little more than powdered sugar and dough and what I can’t help but think was a tiny pinch of deceit.

About a year ago, I started working on a story for the holiday issue of this magazine, based on Christmas recipes from a handful of Christian communities around India. I’d expected that process to be pretty straightforward: get a bunch of recipes, send them to the editor, write a nice little bit about each community, and call it a day. Not so. Recipes in India are passed around much the same way that Aunt Lee passed hers to my dad. Cooking is done by touch and taste, not by measure, and recipes pass orally, or through hands-on practice and repetition. Things get left out. Proportions get messed up. It’s not deliberate. Except for when it is.

Among the most prominent of India’s Christian communities—and easily the most proudly eccentric—are the East Indians, who hail from the Mumbai suburb of Bandra, where I’ve lived for the last three years. Back in 1981, a group of East Indians decided to assemble a cookbook of their community recipes, and it was one of the editors on that book, Astrid Rodrigues, who gave me the marzipan recipe that I submitted for my Christmas story. When I met Astrid last year to talk sweets, she handed me a copy of the cookbook and said there was a marzipan recipe in there. Then, almost immediately, she said, “But don’t use that recipe. Just use mine instead.” Some time later, my friend Malika, Astrid’s daughter, told me, “My mum said half the recipes in the East Indian book were missing some critical information.”

My experiments with the book have confirmed this. Recently, I tried to prepare an East Indian classic called chicken khudi, made with a paste of chilies, ginger, garlic, roasted onions, and roasted coconut fried with the East Indian community’s propriety spice mix, called bottle masala after the empty beer bottles it’s stored in. The book gives proportions, but says nothing about how long or to what color the onions and coconuts should be roasted before they’re ground. One of the instructions in the recipe is to “add enough water and salt.” What’s enough?

Elsewhere in the book, an entire recipe for pickled fish roe—printed without a list of ingredients—reads thus:

“Take salted fish roes, place them in sauce”—sauce? What sauce?—“for three quarters of an hour. Then grind three or four chilies, a piece of saffron”—two pages earlier, a note indicates that saffron, in these recipes, means turmeric—“four flakes of garlic, a little cumin and vinegar. Place this in a vessel with the roes and a little water and cook well.”

A couple of weeks ago, I got on the phone with Astrid and asked her about the missing information in the book. She responded with exactly the words my father had used about Aunt Lee: “I don’t think it was deliberate,” she said. “In the older generation we weren’t so specific in weights and measures. It was a little of this, a little of that.” I told her about my failed experiment with chicken khudi. She didn’t offer to explain what I’d done wrong. She told me that when she got back to Bandra she’d just have me over to try hers.

Not all the evasions can be chalked up to honest errors. Genesia Alves, another East Indian fried of mine, told me that there’s a definite culture of one-upmanship among the women—at least among the older women—of her community. She told me that her mother had once proffered a cake recipe in its entirety to a Hindu neighbor, certain that a non-East Indian couldn’t possibly make it properly, even with the recipe. She was seriously chagrinned when the cake came out perfectly.

Until maybe two generations ago, the joint family structure, in which a woman went to live with her husband’s extended family after marriage, still dominated Indian home life. Women, for the most part, had yet to enter the workforce; the kitchen was their domain. In wealthy families, the women of the house would oversee the cooks who executed the recipes (when they reached the table, those dishes were still seen as Mom’s food, not the cook’s). In middle-class homes, women would do the cooking themselves. Family recipes—i.e., the specialties of any given family’s regional/ethnic/religious community—were typically passed not from mother to daughter but from mother to daughter-in-law, in order to keep the recipes in the family. This system also served to pamper the men of the house. As my friend and fellow food writer Roshni Bajaj Sanghvi put it, “Your husband wouldn’t want your food. He’d want his food.”

Especially in cities, joint family homes have become less and less common, inter-religious and inter-regional marriages have proliferated, and young people have become increasingly interested in foods from other regions of India and the world. Instead of spending her days in the kitchen with mom and grandma, learning Sindhi recipes by sight and hand, Sanghvi, like many young Indian cooks I know, has developed her own arsenal of preparations from every corner of the country: the new cosmopolitanism in action.

Kitchens themselves have also changed enormously, with old-world tools like giant stone spice grinders being replaced by things like food processors. These changes have made some recipes easier. They’ve made others virtually impossible. Bottle masala, for instance, becomes harder and harder to come by each year. Traditionally, huge quantities of spices were dried in the open courtyards that were a part of most low-rise East Indian households, and then ground to a fine powder by women who came around once each year. But as villas and cottages around Bandra have been replaced by high-rises, direct sunlight and space to dry spices have both become precious commodities. The daughters of the women who used to grind the spices, meanwhile, have found work that isn’t as back-breaking. The handful of aunties now making the stuff to sell, Astrid told me, have changed the proportions of the masala, upping the quantity of wheat and chickpea flours in the mixture to bring down costs.

When Sanghvi wants a family recipe, she calls her mother, who will rattle it off from memory, complete with not-especially-helpful instructions to use a half-measure of this, or a palmful of that. Often, Sanghvi told me, her mother will get things flat-out wrong as she translates a quantity measured in the palm of her hand—or more often on the tip of her tongue—into grams or cups or teaspoons. They’re not deliberate, of course, these mistakes, but they are what makes each recipe uniquely hers—impossible to replicate. It’s also what will make Sanghvi’s versions of those dishes impossible to replicate. No one can make it the way mom does.

A couple of weeks ago, when I called my dad to ask about Aunt Lee’s cookies, I found out that I’d never made them in her house. “I started doing the cookies when Aunt Lee got to the point that she couldn’t do them herself,” he told me. “We’ve had our kitchen table for fifteen years”—this is how we measure time in my parents’ house—“and I remember doing the cookies on the round table before that. So it’s been at least eighteen years we’ve been making them at home.” I thought we’d only started making the cookies at our house maybe twelve years ago. I told my dad that I rememberedmaking cookies at Aunt Lee’s house, that he was there, that I inhaled pale clouds of sugar in her kitchen. “Did I ever even take you to Aunt Lee’s house?” he asked.

Memories are made from a little bit of this, a little bit of that. Maybe Aunt Lee really did forget her recipes. And maybe our best remembering begins when we forget.

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