My Grandma, Pat Baker, passed away when I was in 2nd grade from a hard-fought battle with liver cancer. My memories of her are, unfortunately, fairly limited to the version of her that was sick. My time spent with her when she was well happened while I was very young – too young, it turns out – to remember her in great detail.
I was born in New Mexico in the tiny town of Farmington, which my parents and grandparents called home for decades. However, I only spent 5 years of my life there because my Dad got a job in Houston, causing us to move to Texas just before I began Kindergarten. As a result, I didn’t get to grow up with my Grandma the same way my older brother had. However, at the end of her life, she lived with us while she got treatment at MD Anderson Cancer Center. It is that year or so that I remember most. Doctor’s appointments, needles, surgeries, and a version of her that was often tired and in pain.
Flashes of her – the healthy her – exist somewhere in the depth of my memory, but to be honest most of what I know about who she was without cancer comes from stories and photos.
I know she cared deeply about her appearance, a fact that I’m sure became a struggle once she got sick.
She loved to tan. So much so that she was known to put pure oil on her skin and bake in the sun for hours on end. I always remembered her skin being incredibly dark, yet surprisingly soft, because she was an avid user of Mary Kay beauty products which included an array of lotions and body oils that moisturized her sun-soaked skin.
She had a huge makeup and jewelry collection and she regularly applied Estée Lauder Youth-Dew perfume. The scent became synonymous with her – so much so that occasionally I smell it on the breeze and wonder if she’s saying hello from the other side. After she died, my Mom took the half-empty bottle that was left on her dressing table. It’s in my parents’ bathroom – still half full – to this day, and sometimes when I visit I smell it and let the memories wash over me.
I know that she was honest, brutally so at times. Her disapproval of my Dad at the beginning of my parents’ relationship, though seemingly unfounded, was no secret. It may have been that he put picante sauce (as he did on nearly everything at the time) all over his food the first night he had dinner at my grandparents’ house. Grandma saw it as his way of saying he didn’t like her cooking, and I don’t know that she ever forgave him.
But it is more likely that her distaste for him stemmed from the fact that he wasn’t Robert – my Mom’s first husband and my brother’s Dad. My Mom had gotten pregnant at 16 with Robert’s child and my grandparents agreed that she would marry him, not giving her a choice in the matter. From that and other stories – like my Grandma never letting my Mom grow her hair long, for instance – I know that she could be controlling. My perception is that her word was law, and she didn’t much care what you thought about it.
Despite that, I know that she was fun and people loved to be around her.
Photos of her in group situations often show her laughing with a huge, wide open smile – one that my Mom and I both are famous for now. Family stories of her always end up with everyone barreled over in laughter, which sometimes dissolves into tears from the ache of knowing the world has been stripped of her joy. From this, I know that my Grandma was bright light without which the world seems just a little bit darker.
I know that she had a habit of stealing things from restaurants. From salt and pepper shakers to teaspoons to mounds of Sweet N’ Low packets that she used religiously in her tea and coffee – in Grandma’s eyes, everything was fair game.
There’s an infamous story in my family of her stealing a saké cup set from a Chinese restaurant. She told my Dad to slip the set into the inner pockets of his long overcoat, and he obliged because he wanted her to like him. As they left the restaurant the owner ran behind them yelling, “You stole my saké cups!” Everyone else was utterly confused, but my Dad froze. The man continued to yell, causing a scene, so my Grandma threw my Dad under the bus and said that he stole the cups. I can’t tell you what he did to talk his way out of it or how they made their getaway, but I can say that if you visit my Mom and Dad’s house today you’ll see that very saké cup set in their china cabinet.
I know she used margarine, never butter. I know she kept an incredibly clean house. I know she loved the color pink, the Colorado Avalanche, and was a secret smoker – she would tell people she’d quit, but everyone knew she was lighting up in the bathroom. I know she hated when older kids trick-or-treated on Halloween and was an excellent gift giver.
Though of all the many facets of her, the one that most interests me was her love for and skills in cooking and baking. My Mom likes to say she was not a Baker in name only, because she made amazing baked goods from scratch, including infamous homemade bread, cakes, cookies, and traditional Yugoslavian desserts like Povitica. Her skills also included savory dishes like our family’s cherished green chile stew and chicken enchiladas. Making delicious, homemade food was something she was known for.
When she passed away we cleaned out her kitchen – knowing my Grandpa had little use for the abundance of pots, pans, and Pampered Chef products she’d accumulated over the years – and divvied up things in piles of stuff to keep, throw away, and donate.
During the cleaning, we came across a box of recipes. An old postal service box filled to the brim with recipe notecards, old recipes ripped from the pages of magazines, a city cookbook from the town my Grandma grew up in – comprised of recipes collected from residents in the town and bound for everyone to have a copy of, as well as a now coverless recipe book with handwritten recipes filling the pages. It was a gold mine.
The recipes were stained and covered with notes, as good recipes often are, and I felt in finding that box I had found a part of my Grandma that was tangible even though she was gone. One that could be read, experienced and tasted. One that could bring her closer to me.
During the holidays last year, we pulled the box out to find an old family recipe for Kiflings, crescent-shaped walnut cookies, which my brother had specifically requested for Christmas Eve. Grandma used to make them every year and the memory of these powdered sugar covered delights was the perfect accompaniment to our first big family Christmas in many years.
I hadn’t seen the box in so long, particularly not since cooking became a regular hobby of mine, and as my mom began to bake I started to go through it. I was overwhelmed with emotion – seeing my Grandma’s handwriting, knowing she once used these recipes, wishing I could remember the taste of her cooking, and wondering if a love of food was something we could have bonded over and shared together.
I found it hilarious that many of the recipes she wrote were vague. I’m sure much of what she made was memorized, leaving no need for comprehensive recipes, and I find that it’s a theme in older recipes to have little detail and instruction anyway. I think back then cooks and bakers weren’t overly concerned with getting it exactly “right”, whatever that even means when it comes to food. I think they used what they had been taught by their mothers and grandmothers and just went with it, letting the dish evolve and come together organically in a way that only a seasoned cook or baker can.
I became sad that my Grandma would never teach me these techniques. She would never walk me through her famous recipes. She would never cook me food and show me how a certain recipe is supposed to taste.
Or maybe… she would.
The idea came to me that if just going through her recipes made me feel closer to her, what might I feel if I made it a point to try to make some of them? What would it feel like to parse through the food stains and hard-to-read handwriting and use my cooking instincts to make the recipes to best of my abilities?
It would almost be like she was there, in the kitchen with me, and we were cooking together – even if only in spirit. It would help me get to know her better. It would teach me in a way she probably would have if she were still alive.
So that’s what I’m going to do.
Each month I’ll pick a recipe from the box and do my best to recreate it. I’ll talk to my Mom and her brothers if I need to and see if they have any memories, tips, or tricks regarding the recipes. I’ll document the process as best I can for all of you and when all is said and done, I’m hoping what I’ll have is an arsenal of family recipes and new skills. More importantly, though, I hope to learn about and have a deeper appreciation for the person my Grandma was and the person she could have been.
I miss you and I love you, Grandma. Let’s get to cooking.