There is nothing more satisfying to me than giving others the gift of a home-cooked meal. It’s a way to say, “thank you,” “I love you,” “welcome,” “I miss you,” “feel better.” When I was pregnant, I dreamed of carrying on the tradition of cooking with my own child, just as I did with my mother. She taught me how to make everything. Coming from Italian and French Creole parents, she had a repertoire that included anything from eggplant Parmesan to stuffed mirliton. A recipe for vanilla sugar cookies was made by all the women in my family on holidays and special occasions; decorating them brought all of the cousins together. I fantasized about doing the same thing with my child, getting icing everywhere, or watching me pour pancake batter, learning how to fold ingredients with a spatula, like the memories I cherish with my mother.
Three and a half years ago, I welcomed my child into the world, with a tumultuous start. Early arrival, life support, hospitals—you name it. One of the hardest parts of the newborn phase was getting him to eat. I tried everything. Breastfeeding, bottle-feeding, every type of nipple and technique. Ultimately my son needed a feeding tube to help him eat, and I’m so thankful for it, but I don’t get to cook for him, and it breaks my heart.
I wonder how I will carry on the traditions and recipes that are so close to my heart. I think I’ve found the answer in writing them down and sharing them with the world. My mother and I find our most common ground in cooking—comparing recipes, sending pictures to each other of everything we’ve made (she probably has hundreds of food photos on her phone). I host dinner parties with friends, everyone helping to make pasta from scratch. Cooking is my way to create, to decompress, and connect, and I’m determined to preserve the recipes my mother taught me, whether through cooking or through storytelling. Which brings me to the story of how I learned to make the coveted family Strawberry Preserves.
The air was dry, a treat in Southern Louisiana strawberry season. I arrived at the farmers market early to get my pick of the sweetest berries. My grandmother would be proud that I’d already stocked up on mason jars, cleaned and prepped. I called my mother to tell her my cooking plans for the day—our little ritual. We squealed in excitement over the thought of smearing the sticky jam over biscuits and toast, or even slurping it straight off a spoon, like my grandfather did.
Mom didn’t have the recipe, so I’d have to go right to the source. I daydreamed about my grandmother, stirring the secret ingredients at the stove, her six children spying on her as the smell of sugar filled their home. In my imagination, I saw her fussing at my young mother—the typical middle child, assuming she wouldn’t get noticed—to stay away from the boiling pot. As the jars cooled, I imagined her writing down the recipe step-by-step for the family to enjoy long after she was gone. “This was your great-grandmother’s recipe,” I imagined my own children saying to their children, and their children’s children.
I headed home, carefully washing and hulling the strawberries. I opened the screen on the front door of my small 1940s cottage, feeling like I was channeling my young grandmother as I tied my apron and reached for the biggest, deepest pot I owned, ready to carry on the honor and tradition of our family’s recipe, I called my grandmother, who was delighted to hear from me (I like to think I’m her favorite).
“Maw-Maw,” I said, “I’ve got a load of fresh strawberries. Can you tell me how to make your preserves?”
I prepared, pen and paper in hand, to scribble out all the steps.
“Well, you get a box of pectin from the grocery store, and you follow the directions on the back.”
I was confused. “That’s all?”
I didn’t know whether to feel cheated or relieved, and immediately called my mother to reveal the secret. I guess Maw-Maw just exuded the expertise of an esteemed preserves maker.
I can’t literally feed my son with the concoctions coming out of my kitchen, but I can feed his mind and his heart full of stories and love—that’s what we’re really doing when we feed our families. Being in the kitchen together, the stories told over a bowl of batter—that’s the most important part of the recipe. People don’t pass down only ingredients and directions, they pass down memories. They pass down history.
Some day Mom and I may share our new “old” recipe for strawberry preserves, and emphasize the magic and mystery of understanding our ancestors through food. It’ll be our secret...recipe.
Cristina Perez Edmunds is an actress, musician, and writer who lives with her family in New Orleans and Washington, D.C. She can be found on her blog It's Not Too Complicated, Instagram, and YouTube.
Vanilla Butter Cookies
1 c. butter at room temperature
2/3 c. sugar
1 T. vanilla extract
1 egg, beaten
2 1/2 c. flour
Cream butter and sugar together until light and fluffy.
Add vanilla, then egg, and beat for 1 minute.
Add flour gradually.
Form mixture into a ball, wrap with plastic, and chill for 1 - 2 hours.
Roll out on a floured surface, not too thin, and cut into desired shapes.
Preheat oven to 325 F.
Place on a greased cookie sheet and bake for 12 - 15 minutes.
Completely cool on racks before icing.
1 lb. confectioners' sugar, sifted
2 t. almond extract
optional: 1 - 2 drops food coloring
Combine sugar and extract, adding water a little at a time until it reaches a desired consistency for icing.
Add optional food coloring.
Spread on cooled cookies.
Let cookies dry before storing in airtight containers.