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Memories from the recipe box

Holiday baking fills the house with the scent of cinnamon and the sound of laughter. Memories are forged in the cozy heat of the kitchen.

Favorite holiday recipes are more than just a list of ingredients and directions. They become part of a family's narrative, bridging generations.

Cooking such recipes at holiday time can bring long-lost relatives back to life, even for just a few hours. Novelist Barbara Kingsolver describes the feeling as "inhabiting the emotional companionship of the person who taught me how to make a particular dish, or with whom I used to cook it." She can feel them standing in the kitchen with her as she cooks their recipes, she writes in her recent book, "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year Of Food Life."

Great heirloom recipes also have the lure of a great story behind them, says Cook's Country magazine Editor Christopher Kimball.

The magazine sponsored an heirloom recipe preservation contest this year that generated nearly 3,000 entries, far more than the 500 entries the magazine usually receives for its monthly recipe contest. The entries came with intriguing tales about family members, tough times when ingredients were scarce and regional specialities that have fallen out of favor.

While the Mail Tribune's call for holiday heirloom recipes didn't generate that kind of massive response, readers did share recipes and stories about why these dishes matter to their families.

Sweet memories of sweet rolls

For Central Point resident Judy Safley, a smudged recipe card holds not just the details of Christmas morning cinnamon rolls, but memories of three generations of cooks laughing together in the kitchen.

Safely said she loves to bake; she started learning her way around the kitchen at about age 6 with her grandmothers. Her mother made cinnamon rolls every Christmas, and Safley took on the tradition, making them for her own young family and to give as gifts.

When her mom came to visit, they decided three generations should cook together. With her mother and young daughter in the kitchen, Safley smugly announced that she had been baking these rolls for so many years that she hardly had to look at the recipe anymore.

As they rolled out the dough and layered on the brown sugar, Safley's mom reached for the cinnamon, prompting questions from Safley, who hadn't included it in her rolls. While mom argued that the filling had always had cinnamon, Safley was certain it hadn't.

"Being quite sure of myself, I got the recipe out and showed her that it didn't have any cinnamon in it at all," Safley said.

But there under all the gooey fingerprints and splatters on the recipe was the cinnamon in question.

"I humbly and laughingly ate crow," Safley said, noting that years later, her mother's response still makes her chuckle.

Grandmother turned to granddaughter, who was about 6 at the time, and asked, "Why does she think these are called CINNAMON rolls? Does she get confused often?"

'The best cookies I have ever tasted'

When Sherrie Allen of Medford was growing up, the family kitchen bustled with holiday baking, starting soon after Thanksgiving. Her father was a businessman, and her mother and grandmother baked treats for his employees and associates.

"Dad had his list of favorites, and anything new had to pass his taste test," Allen said.

A successful round of tasting always culminated when he announced, "That is the best I have ever tasted."

Allen fondly recalls the proud beaming each declaration brought forth from the cooks — the best snickerdoodles, the best fruitcake, the best cookie brittle.

To get the family recipe for cookie brittle, a chocolate covered shortbread, Allen followed her Grandma Bea around the kitchen, noting what the expert cook did.

Now that her parents have passed away, Allen makes the recipes they approved of to feel closer to them through the holidays.

"It brings the happy memories back, and my folks do not seem so far away," she said.

Something old, something new

Lauren Van Sickle of Central Point and her mom, Jo Kral of Grants Pass, look for new holiday recipes each year.

"We have the general standbys, but each year for Christmas and Thanksgiving, we try something new," Van Sickle said.

She pulls recipes from friends, the Internet, newspapers and magazines. Anything — as long as it contains no mushrooms — has a chance for a spot on their holiday table.

Apple French toast became a favorite Christmas morning treat at its first appearance at the family gathering about three years ago and is a regular, at least for now. It's on the menu this year, and Van Sickle is searching for a new sweet potato dish for dinner.

A change in tradition

A great-grandmother's recipe for sweet potatoes glazed with orange juice and brown sugar claimed a place on Lorna MacIver's family Thanksgiving table for three generations. However, it was a small place because no one really craved the sticky, sweet dish, said MacIver, who only ate it to be polite and uphold the tradition.

"Every Thanksgiving and Christmas, it was against the rules to change the menu," she explained, describing the family recipes as "set in stone."

About 15 years ago, the Medford resident decided it was time to shake things up. She made sweet potato and carrot puree, from "The Silver Palate Cookbook," by Julie Rosso and Sheila Lukins to accompany the Thanksgiving turkey.

"I was pretty nervous about it," she admitted.

It went over well.

"As it turns out, I wasn't the only one who hated the orange-glazed sweets," she said.

The new taste is now a tradition in its own right, appearing each Thanksgiving and no other time, MacIver said.

"I want people to look forward to it," she said. "It makes it ceremonial."

A celebration of citrus

Damaris Fish of Central Point carries on a family tradition by giving gifts of candied grapefruit peel. She learned the recipe from Nana, her paternal grandmother.

She recalls that Nana started each day during the citrus season with half a grapefruit and saved the rinds for candying. However, she had congestive heart failure, and doctors struggled to regulate her medication, which reacted badly to the daily grapefruit. In her 90s, Nana had to give up the grapefruit, and Fish took over eating the citrus breakfast so Nana could still candy the peel to give to friends and family.

Fish said her grandmother lived to be 100, and her recipe and gift-giving tradition are even longer lived as Fish continues to make and share the citrus sweet today.

Reach reporter Anita Burke at 776-4485, or e-mail aburke@mailtribune.com. The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Memories from the recipe box