The Taste of Memory
(by Kathryn Brown Ramsperger)
Like most Southern recipe books, my mother's reads like memoir. In between the pages—with their oil and frosting drips, doodles, and imprecise measurements—there’s a letter to the Roanoke County school system that begins, "Please accept my application for the position of Business Education teacher." The Tennessee Valley Authority and Los Alamos had offered my mother positions after college graduation, but her father wouldn't let her move that far away from Virginia. (She had negotiated for his permission to switch majors from Home Economics to Business Administration, finally compromising on Business Education.) Although she was a brilliant mathematician, her two years of Home Ec made her both nutrition-conscious and a good cook, to her family's benefit.
There are more memories in her eclectic collection: a poem she wrote titled "To a wounded wood thrush," a torn piece of sheet music her mother played by heart, and some scribbles about the bedtime stories her equestrian mother told about a Cuban ghost horse named Bamboo and his ghost jockey. Yes, my mother was a pianist, a skilled seamstress, and a writer of poems and stories.
One of my first memories is standing beside Mama cracking eggs (which made me break out in hives) or rolling out dough. It had to be a different consistency depending on whether it would become pie crust, biscuits, or dumplings, and the trick was to get the exact right amount of milk, flour, and lard so that the baker's helper (me) could keep rolling but not ruin the dough. I was first allowed to help cut biscuits with a jelly glass. (For some reason, we only owned one metal biscuit cutter.) By age 13, I was allowed to roll out the dough with a time-and-love-worn wooden rolling pin. I must've been 16 before any relative let me mix the dough myself.
For all its nostalgia, the most striking part of this recipe book is the ownership of each simple, imprecise recipe. It was difficult to choose one to share that would not offend some part of my Southern family by disclosing its special secrets. I settled on my maternal grandmother's recipe for “stickies.” You don't know the meaning of the words "sinful” and “decadent" until you taste a stickie—both delectable and difficult to get right. Before my gluten-free days, I tried baking them many a time but never met with complete success. I'm not sure my mother ever tried because stickies (also turkey dressing) were considered my Grandmother Annie Lee McFarland Benfield's domain.
My grandmother thought the recipe was Scottish in origin. She began to bake them as a newlywed, while her husband John Kuykendahl Benfield, Sr., trained in Columbia, South Carolina for World War I. Like many Scottish immigrants of 17th and 18th centuries, her family came from the Loch Lomond area, nestled between the highlands and the lowlands, where farming fields of grain was prevalent because of more moderate temperatures and more arable land. So many Southern women brought their Bibles along with their recipes from the old country, even if only as memory, learned by heart from the doing and the making. A stickie might have traveled in the hold of some sailing ship for a while, and while mourning the thought, a traveler could have munched on a stale stickie, just for the taste of home.
When I wrote my novel, I found myself pondering what a Lebanese mother would have sent with my protagonist Qasim's family when they emigrated to New York for a new life. I decided on hummus, bread, cheese, olives, and figs for a family beach picnic. On a long flight to the States, the figs off the tree in her courtyard would have been consumed rapidly. Perhaps recipes for stuffed grape leaves or tabbouleh would have transported the tastes of his mother’s food?
My mother’s recipe book is all the more special to me, her only daughter, because I was 12 when she was diagnosed with early onset Parkinson's, and she died in 2003. I recently tried one more time to make stickies, and my version stinks, but to me, it's the taste of my childhood. Delicious. Whatever Qasim might have brought with him, it would have had that taste of home too. And that's what has built America.
Kathryn Brown Ramsperger is the author of the novel The Shores of Our Souls. A companion e-book of Middle Eastern and Southern American recipes is free with her newsletter at shoresofoursouls.com.