STORY BY MARGARETT WATERBURY • ILLUSTRATION BY SONYA MONTENEGRO
A couple of years ago, my husband, Andy, received a package in the mail from his father: a small plastic box containing a collection of family recipe cards. Millions of American homes have something much like it, perhaps even stuffed with the same recipes for pasta sauce and onion dip and gingersnap cookies. Yet there is no clearer window into the soft, foggy heart of Andy’s childhood — that domain that remains mysterious to even the most attentive partner — than the contents of that modest little box.
I love recipe cards. Domestic, personal, feminine, they’re like time-traveling postcards from another era, tinge of mystery and all. I find their assumptions of prowess in the kitchen delightful. My paternal grandmother begins one card with the following simple direction: “First, make a layer cake.” You know what to do — right?
Fascinated, I immediately read every recipe in the box. Andy grew up embraced in the warm, starchy arms of Midwestern-Italian-Polish cooking, a potent combination of pierogi fried in garlic butter, lemon- and anise-scented cookies, and short, plump sausages simmered in tomato sauce and served with braised potatoes. I grew up on the Northwest coast — first Alaska, then Puget Sound — places that are on the distant edge of our country in more ways than one. Some of the foods Andy ate as a child are as foreign to me as any biryani.
While tempting to leap immediately into ‘80s kitsch like Pretzel Salad (a layered concoction of crushed pretzels, whipped topping, and slivered strawberries embedded in Jell-O), the cookies section, a trove of old-world confections, felt like the most familiar place to start. It’s a little weird to cook from somebody else’s traditions, but I’m thinking of it as a way to get to know my husband’s life as it existed before I entered it, to meet the women who cared for him before I did.
After the box arrived, I started making kolocky, a tender Polish cookie filled with nuts, sweetened cream cheese, or various fruit preserves. My only guide was the staccato, cursive instruction of Andy’s grandmother, Josephine Wozniak, a formidable cook who thinks nothing of cranking out hand-shaped cookies by the gross. (The recipe I use, scaled down for Andy’s mom, only makes eight dozen.) My efforts haven’t been entirely successful — once the cookies didn’t hold their shape in the oven, unfurling in the heat and spilling their walnut filling all over the pan — but I think I’m finally getting the hang of it.
It’s a special kind of culinary hubris to cook from a partner’s most beloved family recipes. I now think my kolocky taste pretty good, yet I wonder — do they compare? “Do these taste right?” I ask Andy, a little anxious to hear the answer. He pauses. “I don’t know what they’re supposed to taste like,” he says tactfully. “I only know what my nana’s tasted like.”
And if there’s another, more compelling reason than that to cook for your family, I’ve yet to hear it.
Margarett Waterbury is a food and drink writer based in Portland, Oregon, and the managing editor of Edible Portland. margarettwaterbury.com