81: A Recipe for a Family

81: A Recipe for a Family

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Food and Love

A Recipe for a Family

At the end of the day, a loving family should find everything forgivable.

~Mark V. Olsen and Will Sheffer, Big Love

I always felt like the black sheep of Patrick’s family. I wanted to “fit in,” but no matter how hard I tried, I was the square peg trying to fit in the round hole. I accompanied Patrick to every birthday party and holiday celebration at his family home — a three-hour drive down winding backcountry roads. But I always left feeling empty, like I missed the mark at another social gathering. I desperately wanted to be accepted into his tight-knit family.

Pat’s mom was a quiet woman who rarely shared her feelings. Instead of respecting this, I tried to peel away at her emotional layers, hoping she would embrace me. Pat’s dad was the opposite, singing in the kitchen as he sprinkled spices in his spaghetti sauce, seasoning it with a little bit of everything he could get his hands on. He handed me a glass and his stories flowed as easily as the wine. Every tale described how his parents emigrated from Italy, and how they struggled to feed their hungry children. Most stories were built around food.

Every visit to Pat’s family ended the same way, with his brothers and sisters huddled around the cozy dinner table filled with endless pans of lasagna, spaghetti laden with meatballs and eggplant parmesan. Pat’s dad made the best salad dressing in the world. It was a recipe he created and although I tried to replicate it, I could never get it to taste as good as his. Pat would try my version, look upward, and say, “This is good.” He would nod his head approvingly, take a few more bites and smile. “It just takes practice,” he would say. “You’re getting there.”

“I don’t understand how mixing ketchup with brown sugar and vinegar can taste so good,” I said.

“There are two secrets to this recipe,” Pat’s dad said quietly. “The spices are very important,” he paused, looked over the rim of his glasses, and continued, “tossing it wildly, mixing everything up, is essential.”

Pat’s dad filled plastic containers with leftovers and sent us on our way. He would wave goodbye as he stood on his porch. He did this no matter how many harsh words were spoken throughout the day or how many tears were shed. Above all else, he wanted peace in the family. The way he chose to achieve this was through food. We always came together to share food and talk about the recipes. We could set aside our ill feelings and escape in a world of pasta.

I started many of the family fights by speaking my mind while we were playing a game or having a conversation. No matter how much I told myself to keep quiet, I simply couldn’t do it. One argument transpired as we played the game Scruples.

“How dare you accuse me of being a thief!” he snarled. His crimson face wore a mean expression, something I wasn’t used to seeing.

“It’s only a game,” I said, trying to lure him back to the couch.

“I don’t want to play anymore,” he said walking into the kitchen.

I looked at Pat and felt dismayed as he whispered, “Nice going.”

“Oh, great!” I snapped, smacking the sofa cushion between us. “You’re angry with me too?”

“How could you be so insensitive to my father?” he jeered.

“It’s a game!” I yelled. “Why can’t anyone in this family play a game without a fight ensuing?”

“Are you accusing my family of being argumentative?” his sister shrieked, picking up the board game.

“Let’s have a glass of wine,” my father-in-law said, carrying a handful of glasses by the stems. He set them down on the coffee table and filled the glasses halfway with a luscious burgundy red from the Finger Lakes region of New York State. “This is an exceptionally mellow grape harvested two years ago in Hammonsport,” he said, swirling the wine as he held his glass high and said, “Salute.”

And with that, the family brawl ended on a happy note.

The family dynamic changed when Pat’s parents passed away and one sibling moved out of state. The family home was sold and household items divided. His sister took the casserole dishes; a brother took the pie plates and loaf pans. Pat took the pasta pot.

The family remained vibrant through food. Every Christmas, Pat made a pan of ziti exactly the way his dad used to do it. The family would take turns celebrating Christmas at each other’s houses. Pat always brought the pasta. Thankfully, the only thing that was missing was the arguments.

This past Christmas was challenging because there wasn’t extra money to spend on gifts for each other. Some family members had lost their jobs, others had their salaries lowered, and we all were trying to pay for college educations.

“Let’s exchange Mom and Dad’s recipes instead of presents,” Pat said excitedly. “It doesn’t cost anything and it will be the best gift!”

I nodded my head, knowing he was right. “I’ll write to everyone and get them all on board,” I said.

Pat and I enjoyed sorting through our recipe box, reading handwritten recipes that were passed down from his parents. We compiled a special file and presented it to his family at our holiday celebration. We all chose our own ways to commemorate the family meals that we all had shared over the years. Pat’s sister compiled her recipes in a booklet with this note included:

“Our family has gathered for over fifty years for birthdays, holidays, weddings, graduations, funerals, or just for the heck of it. The centerpiece of all of these celebrations was to come together for a meal, to share our lives, our memories, our love. Over the years we enjoyed many classic dishes like Dad’s spaghetti and Mom’s apple pie. While there were many successful feasts, there were a few failures too, like Dad’s canned eggplant. It looked like a science experiment that had gone bad. Food was a big part of our gatherings and no one could cook like them. If you went away hungry, it was your own fault! May God bless and continue to allow us to gather for years to come, just as Mom and Dad would want us to do, to create more memories and to help us to appreciate and love each other. We are their legacy.”

By the time I finished reading her note I had tears in my eyes as I realized I always had been a part of this tight-knit family. Each family member was like my father-in-law’s Italian dressing recipe; a lot of different ingredients that came together to make something exceptional. The secret to it tasting so wonderful was the spice and mixing it up. Those two magical elements made our family uniquely special and I’m reminded of it each time I use their recipes.

~Barbara Canale

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