Family Recipe

By Dyana Herron

Although David and I stopped eating most meat around six months ago, we decided to bake a ham for Easter dinner. Perhaps because, since we were celebrating the holiday alone, we wanted to feel connected to our families through a traditional meal. Or perhaps because all the supermarkets had hams on sale. Or perhaps because ham is delicious, and we felt entitled after half a year’s abstinence.

Our new stab at vegetarianism isn’t the only lifestyle choice it is hard to explain to our families. Most phone calls with my mom involve her asking if I’ve kept up with American Idol, followed by my reminder that we have no television. When she responds, “Oh, I thought you might be watching it on the computer,” I remind her that we have no internet access at home either, and haven’t for the almost two years we’ve lived in Seattle.

While both sets of parents may find our stunted technological lives puzzling, it’s nothing compared to the meat issue. David and I both come from meat-and-potato families (in fact, his father is a retired pork salesman) for whom eschewing meat is not only strange, but vaguely immoral, like cross-dressing, or voting for a Democratic candidate.

Baking the ham was a way to reconnect, to convince our parents we are good, carnivorous Christians.

But although we consider ourselves old pros at roasting a Thanksgiving turkey, David and I were flummoxed when it came to the Easter ham. Did we buy bone in, or bone out? What did it mean to “score” the ham? Did we bake it inside a paper bag or aluminum foil, or leave it uncovered? Should we glaze it with something, and if so, what?

“I think my grandma always pours Coke over it,” I told David. He looked at me incredulously, but with interest. “Do we have a recipe?” he asked.

Here lies the difference between our approaches in the kitchen. While we both love to cook, David requires exactitude—a level teaspoon of sugar, the stove temperature just-so, the meat thermometer at hand. I get my kicks from improvisation, and always feel a dish can be improved upon with a little imagination: “You know what would taste great in the pancakes? Chili powder!”

When preparing a meal, he asks, “How can I keep anything bad from happening?”

I ask, “What’s the worst that can happen?”

Despite these conflicting cooking philosophies, we both love recipes. He for their instructional value, and I for their narrative value.

Think about it. Each recipe is a small story about how to make something sustaining and (hopefully) delicious for one’s loved ones and oneself. These stories have various elements—ingredients, tools, etc.—that place them within different regions, time periods, or religious traditions. Learning how to make a food is also learning about the people who made it before you.

Of course, the easiest way to find recipes nowadays is online, and it’s when I suddenly need cooking instructions that I miss the internet the most. But then I remind myself that online recipes often offer conflicting advice on ingredients, temperature, and cooking times, while user ratings and comments make matters even more confusing, the narratives disembodied.

So I either reach for the cookbook, or wing it.

Or call someone. For the ham, I sent David off to phone his mother—as a woman married for thirty years to a pork salesman, I figured she’d know a thing or two. While they were chatting, I pulled out my favorite cookbooks.

While the death of the book is much-debated, the cookbook does not seem to be an endangered species. Bookstores now carry how-to manuals for all kinds of food preparation from every corner of the globe, chock full of photographs—glossy, gorgeous, gastronomic art.

My favorite cookbooks, however, are spiral-bound, have no pictures, and can’t be found at Barnes & Noble. One is Tasteful Treasures 2008-2009, compiled by the parents of the students at my sister’s high school. Another isFinger Licking Good, compiled by the members of Powder Springs Church of God in Powder Springs, GA.

The down side of these volumes is that searching their indices is a nightmare, as a good number of recipe titles begin with someone’s name. “Linda’s O-la-la Fiesta Dip.” “Jackie’s Wal-mart Cake.” “Mamaw Taylor’s Old-Fashioned Peach Cobbler.” One doesn’t normally think to check the “M” section for the peach cobbler recipe.

But herein lies the charm, as well. For there are people behind these recipes, people with names who learned how to make their Peppy Pecan Rolls and Cottage Cheese Canapés from people with other names, probably from relatives or their church families, and not from Allrecipes.com.

I didn’t find the Coca-Cola method of baking ham in my cookbooks, and David’s mom didn’t mention it either, so I called my own mom, who will herself admit she’s not much of a cook. Although she remembered my grandmother using the soda, she wasn’t sure how much to pour on, or when to pour it.

“Would you like me to look it up online?” she asked, and I consented. After she read five or six recipes aloud, I felt I had a composite sketch of what should happen.

David and I bought the Coke, we baked the ham, and enjoyed a wonderful Easter dinner. Afterward I transferred our new recipe to a card, and wrote our names across the top.

Note: This post was orginally published on the Image Journal blog Good Letters.