I made a batch of chocolate chips cookies today because I've had Nana, my grandmother-in-law, on my mind. Her birthday was Tuesday and she used to bake outrageously delicious chocolate chip cookies. All of her grandchildren and great-grandchildren coveted her cookies. I am reminded by her cookies how happy you can make a person when you offer them a lovingly prepared sweet treat. And I am also reminded of how nostalgic food can be.
I am no foodie. And so, by baking these cookies, I do not in any way aspire to top Nana's delicious cookie recipe. Some recipes can never be improved upon. They are so much more than the sum of their ingredients. They are magical. Nana's cookies embody Nana. They invoke her meticulous way of doing things; the way she gave herself to her grandchildren and great-children; her uncomplicated love for her only child's, my husband's mother's, offspring.
For me, when I think of her chocolate chip cookies, I remember my first visit to her apartment and her small, immaculate kitchen. I remember on that visit as the new wife of her youngest grandson, Nana had cookies waiting-- covered in wax paper on a plate. I remember when she disclosed that she had baked cookies, my spouse and his oldest brother reacted with excitement.
"Nana makes the BEST chocolate chip cookies!"
And I have already said, I am not a foodie. I know that people love some foods from their childhoods, dishes they've grown up with that they believe to be special because they have nostalgia baked in. They rant and rave about how the dish is the very best possible version of that particular food. And so you, the newcomer, dive in to taste. But sometimes the dish is not the best version. You discover that their loved one's best dish is an acquired taste, or that its just plain nasty. This happened to me with a good friend's auntie's macaroni and cheese. I was joining my friend at a family gathering,
"You will love Auntie's mac and cheese. Best mac and cheese EVER!
I was excited. I loved mac and cheese. You can't mess up mac and cheese, right?
Too much cheese. Overcooked macaroni pasta. No salt. I am no foodie. I'm just saying, you can't eat everybody's food.
So when spouse and brother said, "Nana's are The Best." I was a little wary because I was the new wife and therefore I must eat the cookies with relish if I am to successfully take my place in my new family. So I'm nervous but then again, I am not one to pass on dessert. Nana offered me the cookie plate. I took the smallest cookie. And I took a bite.
Delicious! I agree on the spot. Their characterization was true. And no one was happier than I. I ate three in rapid succession. Not good early impression behavior. Of course, over time, Nana's cookies began to embody for me all of the wonderful things about her, too. And thus, over time, they become even more of a treat.
We have other dishes in our family that have taken on mythical importance. My brother's seafood gumbo is THE BEST anywhere by anybody. Undisputed. The whole family has his recipe but why? No one can make theirs taste like his. No one. Perhaps cooked into his gumbo is an ample helping of holiday meal and celebratory memories; of warm bellies on cold winter nights and glistening foreheads on steamy summer afternoons. His gumbo invokes Houston and that brief period of time when our entire family lived in one Southern city.
My mother has a strawberry cake that no one else can make. We have this cake several times a year because everybody wants it on their birthday. And so there is a whole tradition of birthdays baked into Mama T's special strawberry cake. Pieces of this cake are fought over. It's a I-can't-believe-you-ate-the-last-piece kind of cake.
For my part, since I am no foodie, I am known for more simple fare. I can make a mean omelet, a reliable lasagna, and a respectable shrimp scampi. If you ask my children what they like most of my dishes, they will almost certainly say my fried catfish or my hamburger pasta. I believe I make delicious fried catfish. I have secret spices that I employ. I have a tried and true method for removing the fish from the fryer right when the batter is cooked to an optimal crisp. The dish is so popular among my people that when I told my parents that my old reliable electric fryer stopped working, I came home from work three days later to find a new one delivered by Amazon to my front door. I think I understand why they love my catfish...
My children's affinity for my hamburger pasta as adults, on the other hand, is beyond comprehension. Their affection for this simple dish is, I suspect, wrapped up in major childhood nostalgia. When my children were small, I was even less of a foodie than I am now. Meaning, I barely... rarely cooked. I was an expert at putting a meal together without the use of stove or oven. Our refrigerator was a desolate place. I believe that this desperate dish, my hamburger pasta, a slightly glorified version of Hamburger Helper, reminds my kids of Houston summers- trips to Astroworld, playing in the rain in the front yard and catching jars of tadpoles in the gutter. I am thinking that this is true because the lazy days of summer would be when I most often resorted to this quick and reliable whole-meal-in-a skillet offering. A group of children might be at the house, just out of the pool around dinner time, when the blazing sun should have set by then, but hadn't. I could whip up hamburger pasta to fool my kid's friends into thinking I was a proper parent. Perhaps my kids were appreciative of the ruse. Perhaps hamburger pasta is a meal of gratitude.
All of my children are good cooks, even the youngest...especially the youngest. They all make exotic, delicious, wholesome dishes with commitment and with ease. When they reminisce over a bowl of my hamburger pasta about their mother's scant provisions, as they laugh about the desolate refrigerator and those week-long runs on fish sticks or tofu hot dogs made almost inedible by microwave cooking, I remind them that motivation to cook well is often born of deprivation. And then I say, your welcome.