This family recipe's secret? It came from a cookbook
December 28th, 2011
04:45 PM ET
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"Wait - there's an actual recipe for this?"

My husband Douglas paused his furious stirring and spun around from his post at the stove. I pointed to the book his mother, now resting in the front room, had left spread open and bookmarked on her kitchen table.

"Well yeah," I said. "Isn't this what you're using? Onion, cornbread, celery, the egg? It's the same dressing you make for Thanksgiving, and this recipe is pretty much it, right?"

The book in question was a 1954 edition of "The Betty Furness Westinghouse Cook Book," with browned pages lovingly, if semi-successfully, taped back into its jaunty yellow bindings. I carried it over to where he stood clutching his dressing-clumped spatula.

westinghouse cookbook

He lowered his glasses from their perch up on his forehead and perused the recipe. "This looks about right, but I swear, I have never seen that. I always just watched Memama do it."

When Douglas turned back around to his work, I could have sworn his shoulders were a little slumped. I surely had not meant to burst his bubble; his grandmother's hands-on tutelage was better than any cooking school, Michelin-starred chef, TV host or bestselling cookbook could have possibly provided. Still, I understood his letdown.

Several years back, as I was distracting myself from my own sadness and uselessness in the face of a parent's illness, I decided to make my Grandma Kinsman's beloved lemon meringue pie for whoever could choke some down.

Thanks to her careful instruction, I can bake a pie crust with my eyes closed - cutting the butter into sifted flour and flicking in just enough cold water to bind it as I blended it together with a fork before kneading. Even if my head was off somewhere in the ether, my hands were at full attention, feeling for the familiar elasticity that meant the dough was nearly ready to roll.

It was also my hands that bore the searing shock of a hot oven rack as I suddenly stumbled. Pulling the empty crust from the oven, I'd looked up at the counter where the ingredients still sat. There on the side of the Argo cornstarch box was a lemon meringue pie recipe. My grandmother's lemon meringue pie recipe. The one I'd been using all these years and I could have sworn I'd seen written down on a flour-dusted recipe card at some point during my childhood.

As I nursed my wounds, both flesh-borne and those less corporeal, I decided it didn't much matter. I hadn't needed her to be Julia Child; I just needed her to be my grandmother. And it wasn't as if she had just cribbed it wholesale. Because of her, I knew that if I didn't happen to have a zest-able lemon on hand (as she surely did not, growing up in Depression-era middle America), I could sub in an equal amount of lemon pudding mix. I also knew to feel and listen for the slight drag and slurp of a wooden spoon through the thick lemon filling when it was time to pour into the blind-baked shell.

The recipe might not have been hers to start, but she made it her own, and then made it mine, and that was good enough for me. Well, that and a second slice.

I reminded Douglas of this story (and the burn scar on my wrist) as he worked more stock into the thick, damp mixture in the two skillets. I also noted that Memama, or perhaps his own mother, had adapted the recipe with handwritten margin notes, but I couldn't tell if it was any comfort. As it was, he was running late to chauffeur his sister (recovering from hand surgery) to Christmas Eve choir practice, and asked me to take over the sacred dressing duties.

I panicked for a moment. I'd grown up in a Stove Top Stuffing household and quaked inwardly at the notion of mucking this up for the four generations of his family who'd be gathering around the Christmas dinner table the next day. "So when will you be back? How much stock do I put in? How do I know when it's ready to put in the pan?" I rifled through the book, "The recipe doesn't say!"

He slid on his coat, grabbed the keys to the rental car and gave me a quick kiss, calling behind him, "You'll be fine! Just get it really moist, but not too gloppy. You've seen me make this a million times before!"

That was true. I had. I breathed deeply and continued to stir, adding liquid and pinches of herbs until it felt and smelled familiar, then spread it into two buttered pans.

And on Christmas Day, Douglas' mother pronounced it the best she'd ever had. That, and a second helping, was good enough for me.

cornbread dressing



soundoff (185 Responses)
  1. Gayle

    I loved the post! Thanks.

    January 5, 2012 at 8:02 pm | Reply
  2. Julie

    I know the recipe to make ice and I have been more than willing to share it with my family. I'm hoping some day that one of them will actually use the recipe.

    January 5, 2012 at 3:06 pm | Reply
    • CN Red

      LMF AO

      January 5, 2012 at 3:19 pm | Reply
  3. ker

    they already did an episode on Friends about this YEARS ago. monica tried hard to make phoebe's grandmother's chocolate cookie recipe – phoebe had saved some of the last batch her grandmother had made so monica, the chef, could use to taste. and she couldn't get it right. then towards the end of the episode, phoebe tries to pronounce the name of the cookies as her grandmother said them, "toulle-ose" – and it turns out it was just "toll house" in a french accent – the same recipe on the back of the chocolate chips.

    January 1, 2012 at 4:51 pm | Reply
  4. JFB

    I have had two "bad" experiences with with recipe sharing. In the first a very good friend absolutely refused to share his grandmother's secret BBQ sauce. It hurt on a personal level, not that the BBQ sauce was that damed terrific.

    A second was an experience from my best friend's wife. After researching a recipe on the web for a dish I have never made, I asked my best friend for his mother's recipe for this dish (a very authentic Italian recipe carried from the "old country") and passed on from his mother to his wife verbally and by learning "at her elbow" standing at the stove. His wife would measure every "pinch" of this and "dash" of that as it would enter the pot; thus documenting for the very first time the ancient Sicilian recipe. He said " sure, I'll have her send it to you, she has all the recipes written down"

    What I got from her was an exact copy of a recipe from someone else in a far away state. I recognized it right away, as it was one of the recipies I gathered off the web in my research. She in fact lied to me to keep "the secret' to herself. I never got the courage to tell my friend what had happened. Ten years later, I still have much different feelings about this woman I have known since we all were teenagers 50 years ago. I just don't trust her the way I used to and find myself limiting what personal matters I will discuss with her. Isn't it funny what a decision to share or not to share a recipe between friends can do? I know another couple that almost got divorced over a recipe – again this was a trust issue, not a valuable recipe that started the trouble.

    January 1, 2012 at 4:22 pm | Reply
    • Jdizzle McHammerpants ♫♫

      You have just given an account of what sounds like several of the most over-sensitive people I have ever heard of.

      January 2, 2012 at 3:06 pm | Reply
    • Gayle

      I would have reacted the same way you did. Whether it is family or friends we have to be able to be comfortable with our gift of trust that we give people. All we know about people is what they tell us, what we see and what we are told. What we see is the truth. Our actions are glimpses of our character. You were right to feel the way you do. One day being a little guarded with her will pay off because she will be true to her character. And, she did not trust you with the truth – that's not a friend. I would not have told the husband either. You handled this just right for a man :) Happy 2012. Want my cornbread recipe? LOL

      January 5, 2012 at 7:59 pm | Reply
  5. bjones

    I wanted the stuffing recipe.

    December 31, 2011 at 4:59 pm | Reply
  6. Soma Sengupta

    Great post. Thanks!

    December 30, 2011 at 6:53 pm | Reply
  7. Brian

    My aunt's annual Christmas cookie assortment, the one I look forward to every year? All the recipes came from the same issue of Good Housekeeping. "I just tried them one after another and they were all good, so I just keep makin' them." 40 years later, they're all still good.

    December 30, 2011 at 11:13 am | Reply
  8. Bunny

    I have three "secrets" that I share willingly whenever people ask, and they do, frequently.

    1. Simple sauces really benefit from the addition of a bit of black sesame oil stirred in at the end.

    2. I use black cocoa instead of regular cocoa whenever I want to impart a really rich, dark chocolate taste to my desserts. It's not cheap, and I have to travel a few hours or get it by mail, but it's worth it.

    3. Bragg's Liquid Aminos make an excellent substitute for soy sauce in beef dishes because the dish has a "brighter" taste. It's especially good in simpler dishes like beef with broccoli.

    December 30, 2011 at 8:23 am | Reply
  9. operaman

    My grandmother used to make the most wonderful cookies. An aunt of mine (by marriage) said she had the recipe and would give it to me. I made the cookies according to her recipe, and something was not quite right. I decided to look on the internet (knowing most of what my grandmother cooked came from recipe books), and found a recipe for the same named cookies. I made them for a family gathering, and they were a huge hit with all my cousins. My aunt who had shared the recipe with me was quite outdone, and I am certain she had left out one ingredient to sabotage my efforts! I will never forget the look on her face as everyone devoured the cookies and asked that I make them for every family gathering.

    December 30, 2011 at 7:10 am | Reply
    • Gag reflex

      "I am certain she had left out one ingredient." I call BS. Didn't you compare the recipe she gave you to the one you got off the internet to find the missing ingredient? LOL!

      December 30, 2011 at 7:26 am | Reply
      • CAP

        That is what she is saying. She is sure that she left out that ingredient to sabotage her efforts. She's not guessing that an ingredient was missing. She's guessing that the ingredient being missed was on purpose, rather than accident.

        December 30, 2011 at 9:40 pm | Reply
  10. Gag

    With that sorry recipe for cornbread I wouldn't touch this stuff. What happened to the flour and sugar?????? [MUST ingredients!!!]

    December 30, 2011 at 6:01 am | Reply
    • Gag reflex

      It is cornbread stuffing, you jackazz.

      December 30, 2011 at 7:23 am | Reply
    • Sun

      Gag, good name for you. Flour and sugar in cornbread dressing? What part of YankeeLand do you come from??

      December 30, 2011 at 7:31 am | Reply
  11. Deedie

    Fine for those who were fooled by those "not -so-original recipes". Hats off to creative/good cooks. What about those who take credit for store-bought goodies?

    December 30, 2011 at 1:57 am | Reply
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