When my mother gave a blue binder to each of my sisters and me for Christmas several years ago, things still seemed bright in spite of the fact that she’d been battling ovarian cancer. She was strong in between her chemo treatments, cheerful and game for outings. The blue binder was full of our family recipes, with introductions, memories, and lots of photos. As I flipped through the pages she had painstakingly compiled, I burst into tears. It was the only time I’d cried in front of her since she’d received her diagnosis, but it was a gentle reminder that, in spite of her stiff upper lip, she wouldn’t be with us for long.
(sisters Anne and Ellen, mom Kathy, and me)
I’m a chef by trade, and although my path to the professional kitchen wasn’t a direct one, it was my mom who inspired me to get there. She cooked with me when I was very little, pulling age-appropriate recipes from The Mothers’ Almanac. Although the daily grind of feeding a family sometimes led to the kitchen fatigue that so many moms suffer, she loved to entertain, and I watched her prepare elegant canapés for the cocktail parties my parents often hosted. I thought I would be a journalist like my father, but while working various office jobs, I was always cooking for friends. It was my mom who thought that starting culinary school at age 32 might not be a crazy idea, that it might even be my path to fulfillment.
Her blue binder is not just a compilation of recipes. It’s a precious memorial to our hometown of Decatur, Illinois, and all of our extended family there, but also (and in stark contrast) to all of the exotic cities where we’d made our home and explored the cuisines, following my father’s career around the globe. We moved every three years or so, to places like the Soviet Union and Turkey, so my mom was really on her own while my dad chased the stories. But no matter where we moved, she always had us feeling at home immediately, often with food. She's the reason my sisters and I are at all grounded as adults.
There’s a recipe for basil-scented soupe au pistou that I remember making with her when I was in kindergarten, that I still make as soon as the summer heat fades. There’s the seven layer dip that cousin Debbie often brought to family gatherings, my grandmother’s corned beef, and Aunt Bessie’s deviled eggs that my mom requested as her final meal (although it didn’t end up that way, I’m afraid). The dessert section is the biggest, with extensive notes on the bouche de Noel she’d been making for Christmas Eve since she was a newlywed in the late 1960s, inspired by Julia Child. She would sit with the oven light on and watch the entire baking time, just to make sure it wasn't starting to crack, and therefore be difficult to roll. Legend has it that before I was born, there were as many as three attempts each year.
Although I lived abroad during her final years, we spoke almost every day, often filling the time talking about food. In the early years of her illness, she focused on nutrition, eliminating sugar and additives from her diet, and so did I. As time went on and food became a burden for her, she would ask me to tell her what I was cooking, what discoveries I’d made on my travels, living vicariously through me, I think.
Much like my mom, I put all of my love and emotion into the recipes I prepare (and since I cook professionally, the job is hard if I don’t care for the clients). I sometimes hear her voice in my head when I cook, like a calming, love-filled song. Other times I catch myself making little noises while I’m moving around the kitchen, much like she did.
As I look through the blue binder, I’m struck by how self-effacing my mother was. She raised three daughters under challenging circumstances, finding grace and beauty in so much along the way. She cheered us and left behind a gift of wonderful memories, meals, and love. As I tie on my apron each morning, it is her legacy, and that of the blue binder, that I carry with me.
Sally Hurst is an American chef living in Beirut. She can be found at www.chefsallyjane.com and @chefsallyjane.
Great Aunt Bessie’s Deviled Eggs
(I garnish my deviled eggs with crisped up bits of prosciutto; otherwise this is the original recipe, in all of its Midwestern goodness.)
3 slices Serrano ham or prosciutto
12 large eggs
1/2 c. mayonnaise
2 t. cider vinegar
pinch of sugar
3 t. yellow mustard
salt and pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 400 F. and place ham or prosciutto slices on a foil-lined tray.
Bake for 10 minutes or until crisp, allow to cook, and break into pieces. Set aside.
Carefully place the eggs in cold water in a large saucepan.
Bring to the boil, cover, and turn off the heat.
Let eggs sit for 10 minutes, then drain and peel carefully.
Slice eggs in half lengthwise and carefully coax the yolks out into a large bowl.
Mix yolks with mayo, vinegar, sugar, and mustard, smashing into a paste with a fork.
Season to taste.
Pipe or spoon the yolk mixture back into the whites and refrigerate until ready to eat.
Just before serving, garnish with prosciutto.