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The sweet hereafter

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This week, the Arkansas Times falls back on that oldest of old chestnuts: a recipe issue. Being who we are, of course, we had to put a twist on that; namely, the fact that most of the recipes you'll find in these pages are courtesy of people who have shuffled off to that great kitchen in the sky, where the Good Lord is always whipping up new things in his toque and apron, running the great mixers of genetics and time, maybe presenting the batter-dipped beaters and bowls to Jesus for a lick down. Kids love that kind of thing when you're cooking.

The Observer, as you know if you've watched this space, comes from a long line of great cooks. While Spouse swears by our Eggy in the Basket (the secret is finding the perfect-sized basket punch for your bread) Yours Truly has, on occasion, burned water. But our forebears are and were unparalleled when it comes to whipping up scrumptious goodies.

As we hinted in the intro to this week's cover, a recipe is a kind of immortality, and should always be gathered from the old-timers (and even not-so-old-timers) in your life with the same kind of reverence with which knights of the round table scurried hither and yon, gathering up pieces of the True Cross. You're going to want them someday. When all is said and done, you're going to want your momma's dumplings, or your grandma's chicken soup, or that special mix of seasoning your dad used to do when he'd cook a ribeye in an iron skillet. Short of scent, there is no surer way of bringing the past rushing back to old, tired brains than flavor, as Proust and his damned madeleines showed us. It is a way, in these mortal lives, to make the ones we love live forever.

For the cover story, The Observer brought in our family cookbook — a thick, spiral-bound sketchbook, smudged with flour and chocolate. We bought the book blank in Iowa City, Iowa, back in 1998 or so, and have been slowly filling it up ever since. We're looking at it now, as we write this, in fact. It's only about a third full, all the recipes written in The Observer's scrawl or Spouse's much more flowing hand. Leafing through it just now, we realize that every page has a memory connected to it, clear as day: the chocolate chip cookies we once shared with a kid who went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction; a Mandarin orange cake we had on the veranda of a great plantation house way down close to New Orleans; our mother's perfect biscuits (secret ingredient: mayonnaise) and chocolate gravy, made every snow day when Yours Truly was a lad; the fake better-than-Cracker-Jacks we made at Halloween when Junior was growing up; the fried chicken we once burned so badly in our apartment that our neighbors thought we'd set the place on fire; the mustard and vinegar barbecue sauce we concocted in south Louisiana when our pregnant Bride was craving Sims' barbecue so damn bad she couldn't see straight; Spouse's chicken and dressing, whipped up in tonnage quantity every Thanksgiving; the sugary, chewy little teacakes Spouse's Nana used to make, when though, to our knowledge, she never drank a cup of hot tea in her life.

There's a lot of blank pages left in the family cookbook, a lot of room left to be filled in by other hands. The Observer, a longstanding heathen of some renown, has a family Bible tucked away somewhere back at The Observatory. But this cookbook, in its own way, speaks more to our real religion: the religion of family, of fellowship, of sitting around a dinner table and laughing to beat the band while loaded plates are unloaded. There is hope in all those blank pages, we think. As we leaf through them, we imagine recipes fading in, written there by cooks to come, children and in-laws whose names The Observer doesn't know yet or may never know, but who we love all the same. We think someday, one of them will turn to a recipe in the first few pages of this book and say, "That looks good." And as ingredients fold together, as batter is poured, as onions are chopped, as dough rises, as forks rise to lips, there The Observer will be, to live again for a moment, a minor miracle made of salt, sugar and flour. May God, in his Great Kitchen, allow it. Amen.

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