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Recipe Magic

For a moment, we can be in their kitchens, standing in their shoes, and sharing their stories.

This holiday season, there are fewer gifts to buy and cards to mail. There are empty chairs at dinner tables and gaping holes in our hearts.

My family is disappearing. In just over a year’s time, I’ve lost my grandmother and two aunts. I am wondering what our holiday meals will look like this year – if my mom will host her annual Christmas Eve party or if we will not feel ready to gather in the absence of those we have lost.

Last year, my mom asked me to bring a dessert to her post-Christmas dinner party. I flipped through some cookbooks that I’ve collected through the years that typically only collect dust. I considered a pound cake with a lemon glaze. I contemplated brownies with a caramel drizzle. I thought about a carrot cake with cream cheese icing. Then I saw it: a dessert that my grandmother often made for my dad named, “Wayne’s Favorite Apple Chip Cake.” My mom had submitted the recipe to her church’s cookbook a few years ago.

I knew I had to make it.

“I’m bringing a dessert,” I told my mom over the phone, “I can’t tell you what is, though. It’s a surprise for Dad.”

“Okay,” she said, “I’m making homemade fudge, so as long as your dessert isn’t chocolate, it will be fine.”

I read over the list of ingredients. It was a fairly simple recipe. As I chopped apples and mixed dry ingredients, I wondered why it had been my dad’s favorite. Once I poured the batter into the Bundt pan and slid it into the oven, I began to understand. The scent of nutmeg, allspice, and apple were intoxicating. I wasn’t sure my dessert would last until the party.

I cradled that cake like a newborn on the way to my parents’ house. Once we were there, I placed it on the table and waited for my dad to notice. It didn’t immediately catch his attention, so I walked it over to him and asked him to guess what it was.

“You made an apple chip cake!” he said, “that’s what my mom used to send me when I was away at college.”

He described the scent of the cake and how it made his hallmates flock to his room for a slice. The apple chip cake was wrapped and placed inside a shipping box, yet my dad’s friends were always aware of its arrival.

After dinner, we nibbled on a variety of desserts, and we all had a piece of “Wayne’s Favorite Apple Chip Cake.” At the end of the night, a little cake remained. I took a slice for myself and left the rest for my dad.

On the way home, I thought about how sacred family recipes are. Some are scrawled out in the handwriting of our aunts and grandmothers. They are smeared, stained, faded, and crumpled. Many are folded and stuffed into envelopes or slid inside cookbooks. But no matter how we find them, they can all tell us stories if we take the time to listen. We can imagine the flour residue on our grandmother’s apron, hear her fuss about someone using the rest of the brown sugar, and watch her update her shopping list on the back of a receipt.

Recipes are magic, really. We gather ingredients, combine them in their prescribed way, and end up with the same tastes and aromas that generations before us have enjoyed. For a moment, we can be in their kitchens, standing in their shoes, and sharing their stories.

I still don’t know what this year’s holiday meals will look like –
whether we will gather as an extended family or celebrate in our own homes. Either way, I’m going to spend some time going through my cookbooks and recipe collections. I want to follow one of my aunt’s recipes for a holiday dessert and make something that helps me connect and remember. I’m going to try to share her story – one ingredient at a time.

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