Kathleen Clary Miller has written 300+ columns and stories for periodicals both local and national, and has authored three books (www.amazon.com/author/millerkathleenclary). She lives in the woods of the Ninemile Valley, thirty miles west of Missoula. Visit Kathleen Clary Miller’s blog to read other stories: http://kcmillersoutpost.blogspot.com/.
While maintaining vigil at my mother’s bedside, her last words, although perplexing to the nurse on duty, made perfect sense to me.
“Where are my cookbooks?” she queried lucidly.
From the time I could crawl, it was across the kitchen to a wall of shelves my father built to house the love of his life’s hundreds of hardcover volumes. Every Junior League on the planet earth had a spin on the chicken potpie or turkey divan. Each recipe collection contained markings, folded pages, and small scraps of paper whereupon my mother would weave orts of wisdom, often unrelated to actual entertaining. But when her directions did apply to any upcoming occasion, she relied on the tried and true success of some former fete.
This was very well accepted by all the ladies—even those who claim to abhor mayonnaise!
From the summer I was wrapped around Old Yeller until the one when I wept through the last page in Gone With the Wind, sultry, simmering afternoons would find her nestled in our Pasadena family room—the cool brick floor beneath her stylish high heels. Her legs crossed so that a hint of petticoat displayed, and there she would read—until evening when my father came home to mix the cocktail—recipes. I could not fathom the attraction to yet another list of guidelines dictated in short order, and simply in order to prepare a meal! Boring. Not to mention, the sheer number she studied and saved far outweighed the few she actually attempted. Why were these her reading material of choice? Compulsive obsession, I thought, long before I knew the meaning of those words.
Years later as I poured over her books and yellowed newspaper clippings while sorting through the contents of my childhood home, I discovered, really, my mother’s diary. Between the printed outlines of sugar, flour, butter and spices her musings brought to mind the occasions she had shared with bridge club buddies, charity luncheon friends, and cherished family.
But the real treasure lay in her cryptic comments, most especially found in the collection of her mother’s recipes that at one time she had collected, typed, bound, and dedicated to me, For Kathleen--the one I think is most like her. In it, she writes, All this Mexican stuff is not my mother’s—just more San Diego County influence on my sister.
Under the heading “Mayfield (the Catholic girl’s school I attended) Faculty Luncheon Punch—a great hit with the Sisters of the Holy Child Jesus” she scribbled, I got all the Hold Child nuns drunk on this (not on purpose) but it doesn’t taste alcoholic, although it is—2 members of my committee refused to spoil a good thing by putting in the soda water.
Alongside “Select 8 medium size fully ripe red tomatoes, she penned, HA! There was a day when you could, this noted in 1980. “Burt Reynold’s Beef Stew” earned the margin notation Mother did like this—I think she had a sort of crush on Burt Reynolds.
On and on she chronicles, remarking who was in attendance, who snickered and puckered over the lemon pie, and who was whose daughter, niece, friend or foe. By the time I’d fingered all the pages, I’d recreated my mother’s social calendar, and therefore the memory of her little girl watching grownups celebrate at table.
Ironically, I’ve noticed this year that a substantial segment of my spending money goes to the number of cooking magazines to which I now subscribe—and never used to. The magnetic pull to the culinary section of the bookstore is lately undeniable. While my husband watches baseball or football on television, I am turning the pages of the sixth slick publication to arrive in my mailbox this month. Frankly, although retired, I am having trouble keeping current—my mother would say there is no such thing when it comes to recipes. Their timelessness is their charm, she would tell me.
Surprisingly, I find this hobby (I prefer that word to obsession) to be a higher form of meditation—reading recipes, even the ones I know I will never cook. Some evenings, glass of wine in hand, I browse Amazon.com or Barnes and Noble.com for the latest collection of astonishing ingredients.
What is it that draws me to pouring over spice combinations and instructions to bake/broil/grill/sautee? What is it about reading recipes that is, well, quite simply, so soothing? Perhaps it is the escape—unadulterated distraction. I travel across countries, flavors, kitchens, markets, and manners without leaving my comfortable chair. What I read is absolutely not newsworthy—neither political, nor societal. These pages hold no trouble. In lieu of anxiety over Armageddon, I will drift off to sleep tasting roast pork loin with mustard glaze, ginger carrots and sugar snap peas, chocolate mousse, and mocha shortbread. Visions of sugarplums will dance in this airhead.
As an unexpected bonus, I find a new connection to my departed mother—and to my daughters as well, who both scooped up that apple that doesn’t fall far from the tree—even three branches of it. My youngest, wed a year ago and living in Scottsdale, Arizona spends several cell phone minutes at the end of each stressful teaching day discussing the latest Southwestern creation she has discovered on some website—then e-mails it to me.
And my eldest? Having left behind for a week the bustle of her job in Manhattan she recently vacationed here where I’ve retired in Montana. No sooner had the plane landed than her father was wondering, did she want to escape urban pressures to commune with nature—go floating and fly-fishing on the Blackfoot River? Hiking in the Bitterroot Mountains? Picnicking at the shores of Fish Creek? She walked through the door of our log home, dropped her carry-on suitcase, and spied the 4-inch stack of recipes on the kitchen counter waiting to be added to my already haphazard collection I keep in a ratty three-ring binder.
“As long as we’re back here everyday in time to sit on the front porch and read recipes,” she sighed.