I was 8 when I joined my grandmother (we called her Munnie) in her kitchen to “help” her cook for the first time. We were making haystacks, caramel and coconut confections that when done, look just like mini versions of their namesakes. I set to carefully measuring Karo syrup, mesmerized by the clear ribbons folding into a neat stack before melting together in her worn Pyrex cup. Munnie handled all the stove work, sparing my little hands and forearms from the popping-hot caramel in process. It was just one of many times I’d stand alongside her, chopping, stirring and testing her ability to carry out the precise tasks some of her recipes required while simultaneously giving whatever I was non-stop talking about the utmost attention. In her humble kitchen in Mississippi, my grandmother and I bonded over a shared love of food and feeding others.
It is why my most treasured family heirlooms are not jewelry or fine china, but the recipe cards covered in Munnie’s scrawling script that passed her culinary secrets down to me. Following her simply conveyed instructions reminds me of her simple sweetness, and even though she’s been gone over a decade, I feel re-connected to her each time I use them.
My husband Scott had the good fortune of getting to know Munnie just a few years before she died, and he came to love her — and her chocolate pie. On a visit home not long after Munnie passed, my mother used her copy of her mother’s recipe and made the chocolate pie for Scott. While never rude, Scott doesn’t sugar-coat things, so when mama asked him how the pie tasted, he told her it was good, but it just didn’t taste like Munnie’s. Mama’s feelings weren’t hurt. (My husband has the annoying ability to be brutally honest and yet charming at the same time.) And we all agreed with his blunt assessment.
Then Scott suggested that maybe Munnie had intentionally left an ingredient off of that little blue-lined recipe card. Maybe, he surmised, she didn’t want anyone to be able to make a pie as delicious as hers. I was aghast. My mother, shocked. We both rushed to Munnie’s defense. No. Out of the question. Munnie was never prideful or vain. (One look at her no-nonsense approach to fashion and make-up revealed that.)
Yet for years, the question lingered. Could Munnie have left something off that card on purpose? My faith was further shaken when I attempted to make haystacks. I tried three times, and followed that particular recipe card exactly, yet not a one of my haystacks set up as they should’ve. I chalked my failure up to a cheap candy thermometer and pushed it out of my mind.
A few years ago, my mother decided to make Munnie’s chocolate pie for my aunt Sandra on one of her visits. As mama dug through the hundreds of dog-eared, faded cards in her recipe box, she found, buried between caramel icing and teacakes, a second chocolate pie recipe in Munnie’s handwriting. She plucked it out, gave it a try, and voila! The result was the velvety smooth chocolate perfection we all remembered; Munnie's saint status was reconfirmed.
For many of us, food forges connections that transcend time and space. My college roommate Rebecca and I re-connected with a recipe for my mom’s holiday bird’s nest cookies. She made them with mom and me once, and a few Decembers ago, called me up to get the recipe so she could make them with her little girls at her new home in Seattle. As I dictated the ingredients and method over the phone, I pictured her writing it all down on a card that one day, she'll hand down to her daughters. My mama’s recipe made a journey to the other side of the country and helped strengthen the connection between a young mother and her children.
We are all connected in multiple ways now. We email. We text. We chronicle every passing thought on facebook and twitter, and “like” or better yet, comment on, the daily minutia reported by our hundreds of “friends.” But these relations are only a shade of true connections.
As much as I enjoy and make use of all of the above, I believe our most basic needs connect us in the deepest ways. By handing down recipes, we are reaching out to future generations, handing them a heaping helping of ourselves and of the heritage that has shaped who we are.
So holding onto that 3 x 5 index card with your memaw’s or your great uncle’s recipe for cornbread or camp stew is every bit as weighty an act as you think it is. Never stop loving, protecting and sharing the things that represent family and home to you, even if those things are nothing more than the instructions for baking the best biscuits in Alabama or making a sinfully rich chocolate pie.
P.S. If all of your recipes are currently stored on pintrest or in some other digital form, grab a pack of index cards and write at least a few of them down. When you're long gone, your kids and grandkids will enjoy making family favorites from recipes in your handwriting. To avoid having your character questioned, remember to include everything and note any modifications you make. Or, if you relish the idea of going down in history as the only one who could make "whatever" just right, then don't!
Oh and about that pie...
Munnie's Chocolate Pie (the real one)
- 1 cup sugar
- 1/3 cup flour
- 1/3 cup cocoa powder
- 2 cups whole milk
- 3 beaten eggs
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1 tablespoon butter
Place the sugar, flour and cocoa in a medium sauce pan and add the milk. Whisk well to combine and then cook over medium heat until it just begins to thicken. Add several spoonfuls of the chocolate to the eggs and blend well. Add the eggs back to the saucepan and continue to cook, stirring frequently, until it it thickens to a pudding consistency. Add vanilla and butter and stir to combine. Remove from heat. Pour into a pre-baked pie crust and allow to set up for about 20 minutes. Serve with whipped cream or ice cream.
This article originally appeared in Longleaf Style magazine.