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The Best Thing Since Robert Redford

(by Ann Dunaway)

I realized that everyone wasn’t eating “shit on a shingle” for dinner when my best friend’s mother served beef stew in individual pumpkins. I felt so cheated that her mother carved out pumpkins as a vessel while my mother’s dump-style cooking didn’t even require measuring utensils. Instead she merely dumped a can of this, a pack of that, and combined.

Nearly every aspect of my childhood meals was scripted and shrouded in duty: the time we ate, the menu, the conversation. And each meal was served with a gentle reminder that you would like the meal. Not liking a meal led to doing the dishes, so I never uttered my dissent.

In my early adult years, I fully exercised my culinary interests in San Francisco. The more I explored, the more I severed all ties to my culinary upbringing. My tastes were becoming sophisticated, while I saw my mother’s as more pedestrian.

The year my mother passed away, my sister compiled a cookbook filled with her recipes. Most were hand-written by Mom, and I missed her terribly, but turning page after page failed to produce any recipe that reconnected me with her. These meals were simple, small-town Midwestern, and my tastes had grown far beyond. They were a journey back in time to my mother’s friends: so-and-so’s beef stroganoff or so-and-so’s lasagna. The instructions were basic: Mix, put in a pan, cover, and bake at 350.

Deep in the main courses, I found a few “entertaining recipes” that were more exciting, and I started to remember that my mother actually did like to cook for her friends. The Hawaiian luau recipes reminded me of my father hanging tiki lights and my mom using pineapples for cocktail “glasses.”

The thickest section of the cookbook was desserts. Rather than references to friends, there were recipes with charming names like “The Best Thing Since Robert Redford.” Mom even clipped recipes from the newspaper, not only measuring ingredients but perfecting meringue peaks on lemon pie and mastering baked Alaska.

A flood of memories came back to me. I recalled being very young and waking up to the smell of “raised bakery.” The counters were filled with huge bowls, and I couldn’t wait until the dough rose high enough to touch the waxed paper covering the bowl. Late in the afternoon, we made cinnamon buns or crescent rolls, and always had enough to share with neighbors.

I began to realize that while cooking for a family of seven was a burden to my mother, she relished entertaining or baking for friends. Then I remembered the last time I saw my mother. She was holding my two-week-old daughter, and I was struck by her expertise. I was still struggling with motherhood, but she had my daughter swaddled and asleep, while she glided in a rocker effortlessly. I heard her tell my daughter, “Grandma can’t wait to bake you cookies and toffee bars,” which sounded silly at the time, but made perfect sense, as the recipes now seemed to define her.

I made the toffee bars, and they took me back to my childhood with a greater sense of appreciation. While we ate dump-style meals, there were no store-bought desserts. The cookie jar was always full, and neighbors were showered with delights from mother-daughter baking projects. Baking sweets was my mother’s language of love. Ironically, her recipe for toffee bars is one of the simplest desserts she made—they are bordering on dump-style in their simplicity. But they are complex enough to create a clear presence in my children’s lives. Grandma couldn’t be there personally, but she is strongly felt in a simple combination of oatmeal, butter, and brown sugar.


Ann Dunaway lives in Madison, Wisconsin, and is the co-founder with her husband of SchoolPay, a payment software system for school districts. Her daughters Audrey and Eva attend college in Arizona and South Carolina respectively.

Pat Langer’s Oatmeal Toffee Bars

1 3/4 sticks butter, melted (14 T.)

4 c. old-fashioned oatmeal

1 c. brown sugar

1 c. white sugar

1 t. salt

1 1/2 t. vanilla extract

6 oz. (at least) chocolate chips, melted

1/2 c. peanut butter

Preheat oven to 350 F.

Combine butter, oatmeal, brown and white sugars, salt and vanilla extract.

Pack into a greased 9 x 13 baking pan.

Bake for 15 minutes.

Cool slightly.

Combine chocolate chips with peanut butter, and use to frost the bars.

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