Recreating Family Recipes: An Epic Fail?

Coping with Grief / Coping with Grief : Litsa Williams

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Most people who know me know I have never been a holiday person (I was one of those kids who cried when we went to see Santa).  That being said, there are one or two holiday traditions I really love.  Not surprisingly, they all have to do with food.  Since my grandmother died there is one tradition I think of and miss each year: her homemade Christmas cookies. They were the best cookies ever.  Seriously. The best.  She would make dozens of tins for friends and family, filled with all different types of cookies.  They were a staple of the holiday season.

You can probably guess where this is going.  This holiday, in an ambitious effort to do something productive and positive, I decided I would track down my grandmother’s recipes and recreate her tins of cookies for my family and friends.  This post was supposed to be filled with memories of my grandmother, pictures of her beautiful cookies, and discussions about the love and connection I felt to my grandmother when making her recipes.  It was going to be great.  Sadly,  this post will now not include reflections on my grandmother from my hours of baking, nor will there be close-up photos of kitchen-aid mixers or cooling cookies or beautiful holiday tins.  Why?  Because I never made the cookies.  Epic fail.

I got off to a good start and asked my mom if she had my grandmother’s old recipes, which she dug up after only a few days of hunting.  She didn’t ask me why I wanted them, which was a relief.


I didn’t look at the recipes for a few days because I knew it would be emotional.  And it was.  I hadn’t seen my grandmother’s handwriting in a long time, and just seeing it again brought up a wave of emotion.  Her handwriting was always perfect, like a penmanship book.  I went through each card and read each recipe . . . jelly tarts, icebox cookies, meringues, tollhouse cookies, and on and on.  I got overwhelmed and back in the envelope, they went.  Next weekend, I thought.

Next weekend came and I looked at the envelope several times– looked at it, not in it. I would like to say it was because I was busy with our kitchen renovation or busy with work.  I could make all sorts of excuses I guess.  The reality is that I suddenly felt paralyzed by this project.  What if they came out terribly?  Would my family feel weird about me trying to recreate her old recipes?  What if they were a disappointment – not the way everyone remembered?  I could barely remember why this seemed like a good idea first place.

I thought of a grief workshop I had just helped facilitate a few weeks before.  Someone expressed anxiety about trying to recreate one of her mother’s recipes – fear about ruining it and disappointing people. I had been so reassuring, telling her that it wasn’t about the outcome.  I reminded her it was about remembering her mom and carrying on a tradition.  Now there I was, with an envelope of recipes I didn’t want to open, too overwhelmed to start baking.  Why was I letting this make me crazy?  They are just cookies, I kept thinking.

I thought of my grandmother. Here is where I wanted to say something to myself like, “Oh, your grandmother would just want you to try” or “Oh, she would understand if they didn’t come out perfectly.”  Sadly, those things would not be true. That just isn’t who my grandmother was.  She liked things her way – done right, done perfectly.  Her house was always immaculate and her kitchen spotless.  Her cookies were always perfect.  If I was going to do it she would want me to do it her way. I looked around my construction-site of a kitchen. Sigh.

I will have a new kitchen next Christmas, I thought.  These cookies should be made in a nice, new kitchen.  I grabbed the envelope and decided to put it somewhere out of the construction zone until next year.  Though it felt like a cop-out, I felt strangely at peace with the new plan. My grandmother wouldn’t want me to ruin the cookies and she wouldn’t want me to stress.

Turning old family recipes into art

As I looked at them one more time before putting them away; I thought of my grandmother writing these recipe cards at her kitchen table and I got emotional all over again. Thinking about my own recipes stored on my laptop, these cards suddenly felt like a dying art. I wasn’t ready to tackle the cookies, but I couldn't just put these cards away and forget about them, so I decided to regroup.

framed recipe

I took the recipes to the photoshop near my house and explained what I wanted – the recipes felt like some combination of art and a memorial to my grandmother, so I wanted to frame them.  They could be the first thing we hang in our new kitchen.  After I shared my idea with the guy behind the counter, he shared with me the memories of his mom's holiday cookies. He looked closely at each of my recipe cards; he asked me which was my favorite.  I felt a little less anxious handing the recipes over to this stranger once we talked.  He understood these were more than just some old index cards.

I picked out my frames.  Two days later came back for the prints and assembled everything as soon as I got home.  They were perfect.  They were not what I set out to do when I started.  In fact, they were nothing I ever considered.  But they turned out to be perfect.

One of these days we will get this kitchen done and these recipes will be the first thing to go on the wall.  And (hopefully) they will inspire me to actually make the cookies next year, the way my grandmother would have wanted.

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4 Comments on "Recreating Family Recipes: An Epic Fail?"

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  1. Ann  January 10, 2013 at 7:23 am Reply

    Love it. Love what you chose to do with the cards. That is so neat!

    This year I did try to recreate a recipe of my Grandmas and did bring it to the family Christmas party. The recipe was simple — chocolate covered peanut butter cereal — sorry, they never had a real name! Well, I made them. My Grandma used to work at Nestle so she always had chocolate on hand. Well, I used a darker chocolate than she used and they did not taste anywhere near the same. BUT I know my family enjoyed seeing them sitting on the tables and allowing themselves to think of Grandma and share a few short stories of her. People did eat a few knowing they were Ann’s version, not Grandmas. It was a the memory of her, not the food itself, that made it okay. Next year, I will make them again, along with the Rum Chata fudge that was loved. Life is a mixture of old traditions and new ones!

    • whatsyourgrief  January 14, 2013 at 10:12 pm Reply

      So true that life is a mix of the old and the new, Ann! I will need to keep that in mind next year when I make my gma’s cookies because I am pretty sure they will turn out as my version, inspired by hers.

  2. Louise Harmony  January 2, 2013 at 10:23 am Reply

    It’s NOT a failure. You are in process and making progress.

    • whatsyourgrief  January 2, 2013 at 8:09 pm Reply

      Thanks Louise! I was discouraged that I wasn’t able to follow through with what I originally set out to do, but I was very glad that something I am happy with came out of it.

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