My late mother’s handwritten recipe for cornbread dressing had been missing for several holiday seasons, and I was afraid that it was gone for good. But last month, while combing through one of our cookbooks, I noticed with relief the two yellowed sheets of loose-leaf tucked inside, each line filled in that familiar hand.
My wife and I share cooking duties, so it wouldn’t have been surprising for me to ask my mother for the recipe. But my wife, who is smart about such things, knew it would especially honor my mom if she asked how to make the dressing, paying tribute to her mother-in-law’s culinary skills.
Of course, my wife was right, as my mother’s response made clear.
“I’m flattered that you like my dressing,” she wrote at the bottom of the recipe. Because she’d learned from her own mother to cook more from intuition than design, Mama had been challenged to translate her cornbread dressing recipe into a simple tutorial.
The result is an unintentionally comic piece of writing, as she makes various digressions and speculations on how much seasoning to use, how moist the dressing should be. There are parts of the recipe that have nothing to do with cornbread dressing, as when my mother tells us, as she often did, how much she loves us, how she looks forward to seeing us again.
That’s why I love the recipe so much. Even more than the secrets it shares about a treasured family dish, the recipe reveals who my mother was. She had the hastily executed cursive of a woman with things to do, and she wrote as she talked, happily indulging frequent asides.
Mama died in 2008, but her sentences make her seem alive again. As author and New Orleans native Walter Isaacson points out in his new biography of Leonardo da Vinci, what we choose to write down can become one of our most meaningful legacies — something true even for those of us who don’t aspire to fame or literary greatness.
“My starting point for this book was not Leonardo’s art masterpieces but his notebooks,” Isaacson writes. “His mind, I think, is best revealed in the more than 7,200 pages of his notes and scribbles that, miraculously, survive to this day. Paper turns out to be a superb information-storage technology, still readable after 500 years, which our own tweets likely won’t be.”
For Isaacson, the lesson seems obvious. “Take notes, on paper,” he tells readers. “Five hundred years later, Leonardo’s notebooks are around to astonish and inspire us. Fifty years from now, our own notebooks, if we work up the initiative to start writing them, will be around to astonish and inspire our grandchildren, unlike our tweets and Facebook posts.”
“Call me if you need to,” my mother writes in her recipe. I can’t do that now. But what she left for us on paper is the next best thing.
Follow Danny Heitman on Twitter @Danny_Heitman.