Sunday, January 15, 2017

Cheese Straws as Family Trait

"I couldn't find the piece that holds the top of my pastry extruder on, so I made the cheese straws the way that my mother did, and it was so wonderful just reliving that memory."

My mom was sitting in the back seat of my wife's car, on the way to the airport.  Caroline, sitting in the front seat, looked at me strangely, apparently because of the look that had crossed my face when I overheard the conversation mom was having in the backseat with Kathe.

"She never measured anything.  She just took the block of cheese, and then added butter, and then added  flour until the consistency was right.  And it really struck a chord in my memory, because she would let me help with the mixing things together.  It really was a wonderful memory."

It was the strangest sensation.  All my life I had heard about my Nana's kitchen fiascoes.  The installed ceramic tile in her kitchen, with personalized designs from family members, one of which said:

Because Nana was, well... famous for burning things in the kitchen.

Family legend has it that my uncle Richard didn't know that scraping the burnt part off of the toast was not part of the toast-making process.  So much so, that one time when the family went out to eat, he demanded that the toast be sent back to make it right.

That's more like it.  Image stolen from here

Like all of my family's legends, there is undoubtedly a kernel of truth there, but is hidden under embellishments and amendments and retelling over the years.

(There is an apocryphal story of the same uncle having a knock-down-drag-out fight with a teacher because of the pronunciation of lu-DICK-er-ous, which is the way my Pop-Pop had always pronounced it to him.)

This, however, was a story of my Nana's baking, and it did not involve burning anything.  But it did resonate, because her way of baking is very much like mine. When I bake, there is a template in my head, based loosely on a recipe.  Note: I do not follow recipes well, especially if the output is something I have made before.  For me, one of the great joys in life is to make something by adding the ingredients until it feels right.

Hearing that my grandmother had done the exact same thing was like having that strange piece of a jigsaw that defied placement suddenly, unexpectedly, click into place.

The whole week after Christmas this year was spent with my mom and sister, and I got to watch as in a mirror actions that I do, from people whose upbringing both reflected and influenced mine.  All week long, small pieces of the puzzle of who I am kept clicking into place.

Back when I lived within spitting distance of my family, there was little to notice.  Regional idiosyncrasies made up part of who we are, and we all - both kith and kin - shared variations on the same accents, cadences, colloquialisms and mannerisms.  It made it hard to figure out where family traits begin and regional variations end.  Much of my effort was spent trying to define myself in terms of what my family was not.

But I have not lived in a state where any of my relatives lived for twenty years.  In 1997, I moved to New Orleans, and have only been a visitor in my home state ever since.

It has given me perspective on family.  And has, in an odd way, made me miss family more, as I find parts of my personality that seem out of place - even in another southern state.  I miss the feeling of the large, extended, tight-knit family.  And so, when family visits, I get to watch in wonder as I see unexpected connections within family, and remember the parts of family that you miss in a skype call.

These people are me.  These people are mine.  Just like my Nana's cheese straws, there is a direct connection to the way I do things.  The concentration and excitement at learning a musical instrument, seen when Mom got her ukulele.  Laughing together, eating together, talking, being, recalling. The shared memories that we laugh at - or cringe at - together.

Seeing these people grounds me.  Being with these people reminds me of who I am.  Munching on cheese straws, and being who I was meant to be.

Tying myself, ever firmer, to family.  And, now that they are gone, missing them all the more.

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