Recipes and legacies
Sometimes the best way to honor a beloved family member is through their cooking
Emily Hoffman serves a roasted heirloom tomato salad at her home on Thursday, April 15, 2010. Hoffman is collecting recipes and the stories behind them for a book to honor her kitchen-whiz mom, who died of cancer in 2006. (Beth Rooney, Chicago Tribune / April 14, 2010)
Every Christmas, DeWitt, 36, would gather with her mom and sisters at great-grandmother Mabel Shearan's house to make the famed treats.
"She had wonderful old metal cookie cutters," recalls the Jersey City, N.J., high school theology teacher. "She had a huge kitchen table that we would gather around. The grown-ups usually rolled out the dough. The kids were allowed to use the cookie cutters and, best of all, we got to decorate them when they came out of the oven."
After Shearan passed away, DeWitt and her female kin pressed on with the cookie-making tradition — "with marginal success."
"We never got them right," she says. "They were too spread-out, they were too puffy, they tasted funny, you name it."
That didn't stop DeWitt from submitting the recipe to Bittersweet Memories, a project spearheaded by Emily Hoffman, a 27-year-old Chicagoan who lost her mother, Renee Israel, to breast cancer in 2006. Hoffman is collecting recipes and, more important, the stories behind them, from people to whom food and family are forever intertwined.
"The book is about people who've lost anyone," says Hoffman. "It could be a friend, a cousin, a parent, a sibling. It's about how we remember people through food. It's about stories that grab you, make you smile, make you cry, make you feel like other people understand what you're going through."
For DeWitt, her great-grandmother's recipe proved to be as therapeutic as it was vexing.
"In the fall of 2005, when I was teaching in California, my mom started having great difficulty walking and had to move in with her sister," DeWitt says. "One evening in December, I received a phone call from my mom. They were attempting to make the sugar cookies for our Christmas gathering. Needless to say, it was a disaster."
DeWitt's mother fumbled for explanations: "It must be too warm in the kitchen. Maybe we're not chilling the dough long enough. Maybe Grandma Shearan knew something we don't know."
Meanwhile, DeWitt recalls, "I felt like I was home."
DeWitt eventually lost her mom to ALS. "But she never lost her sense of who she was. Even during the last weeks of her life, she still insisted that I make her a latte in the morning, even though she could only take in a couple of sips," DeWitt says. "And those tricky cookies remind me of her and the legacy of strength she passed down."
Hoffman hopes to collect a few hundred recipes, and plans to turn her favorite 100 into a book to be released at the end of this year. She has received 60 or 70.
"The recipe is important, but it's more about the story," Hoffman says.
Lauren Loef, 36, sent Freddy's Favorite Pistachio Pudding Cake, a recipe honoring her dad, who passed away unexpectedly last year.
"My dad was my rock and my best friend," says Loef, who lives in Atlanta. "My mom and I used to make the cake for his birthday. He loved it because it has this amazing gooey center. Every year on my dad's birthday, we plan to make this cake to honor his memory and share in something sweet that he loved."
Terry Petrani, 56, submitted her Aunt Mary's balsamic chicken recipe. "We grew up in the Bronx, and she had a summer home in the country, which was Fishkill, N.Y. — an hour and a half from the Bronx. To us, it was the country because there were so many trees, mountains and dirt roads. There was a John's General Store, where my cousins and I would go to get penny candy. We walked there while being chased by bees.
"Whenever we went to the country, my aunt would make either escarole soup or penne with marinara sauce as a first course. Second would be balsamic chicken with baked potatoes, peas with onions and bacon, and a salad. For dessert, it would be Aunt Mary's ‘S' cookies and everything my mom baked from scratch: pignoli (pine nut) cookies — the best you ever ate — apple pie, snake buns — Bronx term for cinnamon-raisin buns — and peach shortcake.
"I am so fortunate to have grown up in a family where food was love," says Petrani, who lives on Long Island now. "Anybody could stop by, and in 10 minutes we had a table full of delicious food. Everyone was welcome."