A recipe has no soul. You, as the cook, must bring soul to the recipe. ~Thomas Keller
As I prepare for Christmas dinner at our home, I look forward to the smell of turkey roasting in the oven and the opportunity to make my mom’s brown gravy.
Two weeks ago, as I sat in the chair at the hair salon, Anita, my hairdresser, and I talked about our Christmas plans as she added highlights and wrapped my hair in foil. Sharing our menu plans, we laughed: we both decided to bypass ham this year and make turkey instead.
I told her how much I love the smell of turkey on Christmas day, it reminds me of Christmas dinner at my grandparent’s house when I was a child. After I got married, my parents started hosting Christmas Eve at their home and for nearly 25 years, I watched my mom make brown gravy, her hand swiftly moving a wire whisk in elegant “S” patterns in the roasting pan.
“You like to make gravy? I hate making gravy!” Anita had exclaimed.
“Why?” I asked.
“Because mine always turns out bland and lumpy. I always ask my mom to make it” she said.
“Yes, gravy can be intimidating, but it’s easy,” I told her and then I shared the story of the first time I made my mom’s gravy.
It was about 12 years ago when my husband and I hosted Thanksgiving at our home. My sister-in-law normally hosted for my husband’s family, but at the time, she had been undergoing chemotherapy; our hosting gave her a break from preparing and cooking for our large group.
I had never cooked a Thanksgiving meal, nor had I roasted a turkey; I was worried that it would be dry or under-cooked. When the turkey came out of the oven, the temperature was a perfect 165 degrees, the skin, perfectly brown and the pan was full of drippings.
I closed my eyes, took a deep breath and pictured myself standing in the kitchen with mom. She always reached for her Bisto granules, a commonly used meat-flavor gravy powder that is used in the United Kingdom. My British mom had grown up with Bisto and it had been her key ingredient for her deep-dark gravy.
I grabbed the Bisto container and dumped the brown granules into a Pyrex measuring cup, added chicken broth and mixed the two together creating a brown, muddy-looking liquid. I poured it into the roasting pan and turned up the gas flame. Keeping my eyes closed, I visualized standing in my mom’s kitchen as I stirred and scraped, the thick sauce bubbling and popping as I made “S” patterns in the thickening gravy. I had lowered the flame, dipped a teaspoon into the mixture and then blew before taking a taste. It was almost as good as hers.
I had drained the fat and poured the gravy into two large gravy boats which someone had carried out to the table. A blessing was said and words of gratitude were shared and then we tucked into the meal. I took a forkful of potatoes and as I brought it to my mouth, my sister-in-law said: “This is the best gravy I’ve ever had in my entire life!” – which didn’t exactly please my mother-in-law – and elicited laughter around the table.
As I shared this story with Anita, I was overcome with a mixture of gratitude and grief. I was so grateful to have watched and learned from my mom over the years and sad, not just because is no longer here, but rather knowing that had I not paid attention, had I not trusted my instincts, and remembered what she did, perhaps I too, would be making lumpy bland gravy.
I looked at my hairdresser in the mirror as she folded foils. “Anita, watch your mom on Christmas day. See what she adds to the pan, watch how she stirs, how she tastes it, and ask her what her secret tricks are. You can make gravy, trust me” I insisted. Then I added, “You don’t want to regret not watching and learning from her.”
Since my mom died, I have learned that the best recipes are the ones that she didn’t write down for me; they are the ones that she passed down from her memory. I may not make her gravy or her sherry cake the exact same way she did, but I do have the secret ingredients: the love and memories of spending time in the kitchen watching and learning from her – that’s what makes her recipes – and now my recipes “the best ever!”