The request from my sister-in-law was simple enough: "Can you teach me to make chicken and dumplings, the way your mother used to make it?" She wanted to surprise her husband, my brother, with his favorite childhood dish, a staple of Sunday dinners when we were kids.
I couldn't recall the last time I'd made it. But chicken and dumplings ... how hard could that be? Since I had no guide in my recipe file and none of my cookbook versions sounded quite right, I'd have to rely on memories.
A whole chicken, boiled until the meat slipped off the bone. Chopped onions, celery, lots of pepper and salt. I remembered spongy slabs of biscuit dough that my mother rolled flat and sliced, then dropped into the simmering pot. But there was so much I couldn't remember. Does the chicken stay in the pot while the dumplings are cooking? Are there bay leaves involved? Butter? Garlic? Are the dumplings supposed to be this sticky?
I narrated as I went through the motions, dictating measurements and steps with an authority I didn't feel. Jennifer dutifully took it down, presuming that somehow I know these things, as if I had become my mother when she passed on and I inherited her mantle as matriarch of our family.
I realized it wasn't just a meal I was making; it wasn't only physical hunger they were trying to sate. That pot of imperfect chicken and dumplings was intended to recapture my mother's spirit, to satisfy an emotional need and link us to our family's past.
In my mother's family, the cooks never seemed to use cookbooks or consult written recipes. I always thought it was a product of their Southern heritage, a youth spent on a farm in poverty, where you had to cook with whatever was on hand and required ingredients were a luxury.
Now, I consider it a reflection, as well, of an incongruous combination of culinary arrogance and humility. "It's simple, but I can't tell you how to make it," my aunts would say if we asked. "You'll just have to come in here and watch."
Of course, as kids, we never did. We just ate and enjoyed and never realized that they wouldn't always be around to cook like this. We considered the special dishes that each cook toted to family dinners and cookouts a sort of birthright, an entitlement in our family.
Aunt Ora's peach cobbler and three-bean salad, Uncle Earl's spareribs, Aunt Rose's cornbread, Aunt Lottie's macaroni and cheese
Now I realize that I may never again taste any of these. My uncle has passed on and my elderly aunts have moved back down South and don't cook much anymore. In desperation, I make the rounds by phone, trying to wring from their memories enough to assemble some recipes.
But their answers are basically the same. And though they leave me short of what I need to know, they give me food for thought in their simplicity: It's been so long, I can't remember how I made it, honey. I didn't use a recipe. I just made it by heart.
By heart, indeed.
It is 100 degrees outside, and inside, our kitchen is sweltering as steam rises from a simmering vat on the stove, bubbling with the beginnings of fresh chili.
Chili was one of the few things I let my mother teach me to make. "It's good for when you have friends come over," I remember her saying, as we sat side by side at the kitchen table, surrounded by mounds of chopped celery, peppers and onions and cans of tomatoes and kidney beans. I realize now, it was my life without her that she was imagining.
Over time, chili became the item I considered my specialty--the meal I served in college when friends dropped by, the first meal I cooked for the man I would marry, the dish my former baby-sitter still raves about in letters from her home in Sweden. "Please send me the recipe," she says. "I don't have one," I tell her. "I make it by heart."
And while it may not be much of a culinary legacy--not like lemon souffle or chateaubriand--on this night, I'm determined to pass it down to my daughters. It may be too late for my mother, but there's still time for me.
But when I gather my girls around the table, their protests undo my good intentions. "It's too hot in here.... You know I don't eat meat.... Cutting onions makes my eyes water." I dismiss them in frustration. They don't realize that this is about more than food. They cannot conceive of a time when I won't be here to cook, cannot imagine standing alone before the stove trying futilely to re-create my recipes.
But the mere request that I make my mother's chicken and dumplings has left me face-to-face with mortality.
I think of all the things she seemed to make so effortlessly ... meatloaf, fried chicken, collard greens, biscuits smothered with turkey a la king. I can still summon those tastes from memory, but cannot replicate them on my own.
Maybe that is as it should be, as it has to be. Because while we learn to improvise, we must also learn to live without.
Just as I may never again taste the richness of my mother's chicken and dumplings, the perfect peach cobbler, the creamiest macaroni and cheese, no written recipes or cooking lessons will save my daughters from one day cooking alone, by heart.
Sandy Banks' column is published Sundays and Tuesdays. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.