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My mother had an interesting recipe for strawberry shortcake. I never questioned the fact that there was no cake involved; it was simply the way she prepared a fresh strawberry dessert -- with pie crust. She rolled out pie crust squares and baked them on a cookie sheet and layered them with the syrupy sweetened strawberries and topped it off with freshly whipped cream. It was delicious, and to our family, it was "strawberry shortcake."
Recently, a mention of strawberry shortcake on Facebook led me to ask my cousin if his mother (my aunt) prepared strawberry shortcake with pie crust. It turns out that she did, and he had grown up the same way I did, thinking that the absence of cake wasn't unusual. I also determined that the recipe must have come from my grandmother on my Dad's side. Dad confirmed that he had been the source of my mother's strawberry recipe; he had always had it with pie crust and had asked Mother to continue making it that way. In other words, "It's a family thing."
Cousin Terry Joe also mentioned that his mother had always baked a pie with sweet potatoes and called it pumpkin pie. Same spices as pumpkin pie, but made with sweet potatoes. Another "family thing".
I began thinking about why we cook the way we do. Some of us are Food Channel followers, may have developed into vegans, or have espoused other dietary traditions. The Internet makes thousands of recipes at our fingertips, and many of us experiment with newly available food choices, or we grow our own.
During our earliest cooking experiences, we may have looked to our family members for advice or ingredients. That's how we may have come up with pie crust strawberry shortcake or "pumpkin pie" made with sweet potatoes. It's also how we may have a family tradition of "American spaghetti" (without Italian seasonings) or removing the skin from chicken before frying, years before healthy eating dictated it. (Both of these are further examples from my childhood.)
I have never been known as a great cook. I'm the person who puts together a holiday meal for a large group, who provides the meat and most of the side dishes, and wishes for that specific compliment, "This is really delicious." Sometimes it comes; more often, it doesn't. My corn bread dressing will never measure up to my stepmother's, and my chocolate cake and fudge will always take second place to my mother's and my sister's.
I do have the edge with two dishes, though. The first is what our family always called "gunk". Gunk is that pie that you make with Eagle Brand milk and lemonade. I like it best with a graham cracker crust that I make myself, with extra butter and sugar. It's called "gunk" because my kids could never wait until it set up into a pie (and because it was calling me, too). So we spooned it into bowls and dug in. And it was really delicious -- really!
The other dish has been designated the best meatloaf my husband ever had. That's a recent designation. My mother's meatloaf recipe is a mixture of ground beef, chopped onion, ketchup, egg, oatmeal, salt and pepper, with ketchup poured over the top. One day I was watching Paula Deen and noted that her recipe was very similar to mine, except that she mixed ketchup, brown sugar, and honey dijon mustard for the glaze. I tried it and the rest is history -- I have joined the ranks of complimented cooks and now I am adding ingredients everywhere!
Back to the subject of this post: some reasons we may cook the way we do -- to please our families and because our mother (grandmother, great-grandmother, etc.) did it that way. You may have heard this story, or a variation:
Alice was baking a ham for Sunday dinner, and called her mother for the recipe. Mom told her to first cut off the ends of the ham. She did so, followed the recipe, and the ham was delicious. Later, she asked her mother why she needed to cut off the ends of the ham. Her mother said that Grandma did it that way and Alice should ask her why. Alice was visiting her grandmother in the assisted living center the next week and asked her why it was necessary to cut the ends off the ham before baking it. Grandma gave her an odd look and said, "I always cut off the ends because otherwise, it wouldn't have fit my roasting pan."
What odd recipes or food preparation traditions are in your family?