One of my Christmas presents from my parents was a copy of The Man Who Ate Everything, a collection of essays by Vogue food critic Jeffrey Steingarten. It’s a fantastic read. Steingarten mixes personal essay with food, science, travel and recipe writing in a way that’s informative, provocative, sensual and hilarious.
I had read several of the essays before, but had somehow missed that Steingarten has a Mormon connection — his wife was raised in the faith and culture.
Of course, it’s easy to for me to pinpoint why — all is revealed in the chapter titled “The Smith Family Fruitcake.”
I don’t eat fruitcake.
Steingarten loves it — a fact he attributes to not tasting it until he was 18 (his family is Jewish), and to the Smith family fruitcake. The best, he claims, was Aunt Marjorie’s (based on recipe created by Aunt Esther in Twin Falls), but Aunt Vivian’s — which she would send every year wrapped in a copy of the Deseret News — was also good. He also gives shout outs to Aunt Melva’s taffy, Aunt Frances’s jam and Aunt Evelyn’s butter mints, cookies and fudge.
I was enjoying reading someone of his talent and humor take on Mormon cuisine (such that it is).
But then Steingarten writes:
“”¦as the years pass and Christmases come and go like clockwork, fewer of my wife’s relations are able to bake as much as they would like, and most of the younger generation seems more skilled with the can opener than the canning jar. Marjorie and Aunt Vivian kept the fruitcakes coming until the end”¦” (398).
This, dear readers, should not be. I say it’s time to broaden our understanding of the spirit of Elijah. Yes, journals, written and oral histories, photos, genealogies and eternal covenants are important. But how much more would we feel connected to our ancestors if we didn’t confine them solely to text and image?
What happens when our daily practices — our material life, our life with materials — is suffused with their spirit, with the way they do/did things?
Let’s find out. I propose that all of us seek out our mothers — especially our aunts, great aunts and grandmothers — and learn from them whatever it is they do best. Not only cooking, but quilting, gardening, sewing — all the practices that arose out of gospel teachings, pioneer heritage and the conditions of life and history. I’m talking in particular here about the practices of Mormons in the Intermountain West, but certainly this is something anyone could do no matter his or her background.
And I don’t think it’s enough to call up and ask for the recipe. Often what makes a particular dish great are the little things that recipes can’t really capture. Get into the kitchen with your Great Aunt Martha and take copious notes of how she does things (especially how she measures and mixes — oftentimes the difference between packing the cup of brown sugar or not can lead to widely different results).
Some of this knowledge has already passed away. I vaguely recall hearing that a cousin of mine knew how to my Great Aunt Grace’s legendary divinity (of which I have often heard, but never remember tasting). But it’s not too late. Mormon cuisine is basically the food of the 1950s with a few traces of pioneer times. Those with this knowledge are still around.
And I don’t mean this to be some sort of ironic, post-ironic, kitsch project. It’s not hipsters learning to knit or crochet.
All I’m saying is this: let’s not forget the traditions of our mothers.