A recipe for roots

Just add a little salt

Scribbled on the back of an old grocery store receipt is a recipe I got from my parents’ neighbour. I feel it in my pocket and smile. It’s for Aunt Nora’s chicken salad. I have no idea who Aunt Nora is, but she must be a creative woman for there are red grapes, pineapple chunks and curry in her chicken salad. I imagine her in her kitchen as she chops and stirs, unaware that her recipe is being passed from the hands of one person to another.

I am no great chef, but there is something about recipes that excites me. Maybe it’s because so many are saturated with history. I love finding instructions for bakeapple jam or Christmas cake written in my Nanny’s flowery scrawl. Or the recipe for peanut butter rice krispie squares that I copied in big, loopy handwriting from a family friend when I was ten. There is the bean salad recipe from a reunion with high school friends, a recipe I got in Indonesia while on exchange, and my uncle’s courting recipe, a chicken and vegetable dish he used over forty years ago to woo my aunt.

On the day my daughter was born, my aunt brought me Wesleyan buns made from my great-grandmother’s recipe. Even though I never met my great-grandmother, eating her special buns somehow made me feel comforted, and as if I had taken my rightful place in a long line of women who have given birth and sustained life with their recipes. Recipes are part of our legacy.

I love flipping through my Mom’s old recipe books and finding her handwritten comments in the margins. “Kids love it!” beside the macaroni casserole she used to make us before trick or treating. “Delicious” for the cold chicken recipe she prepared for the first night of our annual summer camping trip. “A little less salt” next to the beefsteak and kidney pie we used to eat every Christmas Eve. (Recipes document change, too. Now my mom and I are mainly vegetarians). My aunt makes notes about when she made the recipe – “2010 Labour Day barbeque with Kelley and Imran”, “Jim’s 60th birthday”. Her recipe books tell a family story just as vivid as home videos or photo albums.

They say that the eyes are windows to a person’s soul, but recipes can tell us something too. Through the recipes my mom has assembled over the years you can make out her Newfoundland heritage in the instructions for Jigg’s dinner, you can see her fledgling attempts at vegetarianism through instructions for tofu stir fry, and you know just what kind of a Mom she is by the dirtied and tattered state of the recipe for “Christmas dough ornaments to make with kids.” If you want to know something about someone just ask for a few of her favourite recipes.

Some recipes are laden with implicit meaning. I am known to make vegetable lasagna a little more often than I should, but because it takes so long to chop and roast all of those vegetables, I usually only share it with special guests. When I was dating the man who is now my husband I made him lasagna the first time he came to my place for dinner. Later that evening we were talking to my sister on the phone and she asked him what I had served. As soon as he said vegetable lasagna she knew that I was in love. Recipes are a language.

Do you speak recipe?

It is Friday night and I am racing around my kitchen trying to prepare dinner for a group of guests. The rice is taking longer than I expected and looks like it’s going to be mushy. The shrimp are overcooked and as I blow the hair out of my face and wipe my brow I wonder why the heck I am doing this. But then – then! We sit down to eat and a guest exclaims, “This curry is delicious! I’d love the recipe.” I go to the kitchen, a smile of satisfaction playing on my lips, and retrieve the yellow coconut curry recipe I got from my Australian friend. I hand it over to my guest and watch with pleasure as she copies it out, folds it carefully and puts it in her pocket. We sit down to dessert and the legacy continues.

Kelley Powell

About Kelley Powell

Kelley Powell has a Master’s degree in international development and has worked at a home for impoverished women and children in India, on a domestic violence research project in Laos and with the Canadian government’s family violence prevention unit. She met and married her husband, Imran, in Laos and is now happily at home with their 3 children, aged 7, 4 and 2. She teaches yoga and meditation in Ottawa and specializes in teaching parents, pregnant women, children and teens. When her children are napping or at school, she leaves the dishes in the sink and the toys on the floor and she writes. Her publishing credits include The Globe and Mail, Maclean’s and New Moon Girls magazine. She is currently seeking a publisher for her young adult novel. Kelley is a partner in Satya Communications, a freelance writing company that creates compelling articles, reports and communication for a variety of clients.