Chicken & Spinach Lagagna Roll-Ups

It’s the last week of school, and needless to say, it’s crazy busy around here. However, I took some time today to cook one of the Heathen’s favorite dishes: Chicken & Spinach Lasagna Roll-Ups. This super-easy meal gets a fast flavor cheat by using ranch dressing mix to season the chicken and spinach filling. I prepped it in the morning so all I had to do was pop it in the oven, and serve it up with a side salad and some garlic bread. And wine. Lots of wine. Did I mention it’s kinda crazy around here right now?

Chicken & Spinach Lasagna Roll-Ups

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Ingredients

  • 2 (8-ounce) packages Neufchatel cream cheese, room temperature
  • 2 packages powdered ranch dressing mix
  • 2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cooked and shredded (or about 3 cups of cooked chicken)
  • 1 (12-ounce) bag of frozen chopped spinach, thawed
  • 1 box lasagna noodles, cooked according to package directions (about 15 noodles)
  • 2 (8-ounce) cans tomato sauce
  • 1 cup half and half OR 1-1/2 cup heavy cream
  • 2 cups grated mozzarella cheese

Procedure

  1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees. In a medium-sized bowl, combine cream cheese and ranch mix until incorporated. Remove about 1/3 cup of this mixture and set aside.
  2. Add chicken and spinach to the bowl, stirring until the mixture is well blended.
  3. Carefully spread about three to four tablespoons of the chicken mixture onto each noodle. From the narrow end, roll up each noodle and place seam side down into a casserole dish
  4. Combine reserved 1/3 cup cream cheese with tomato sauce, whisking until blended. Add half and half OR cream, stirring to combine.
  5. Pour sauce over roll-ups and cover the casserole with foil. Bake for 25 minutes. Sprinkle cheese over roll-ups and re-cover loosely with foil. Bake an additional 10 minutes, or until hot and bubbly.

Cook’s Notes:

  • I cook for 6 people every day, three of which are hungry guys, so I tend to make a lot of food. You can easily half this.
  • Don’t forget to add salt to your pasta water. Salting the pasta water separates the good pasta cooks from the not-so-good pasta cooks.
  • To make the noodles easy to work with, lay out some foil or parchment paper on the counter and spray with non-stick spray. After you drain the noodles, lay them out in a single layer on the foil to prevent sticking.
  • Cook a few extra lasagna noodles. Inevitably, some will tear during the cooking process, so it’s good to have backups.
  • Grab a rotisserie chicken to cut the prep time if you want. I cooked a big batch of chicken in my Instant Pot and used the rest to make chicken salad.
  • Variation ideas: Add roasted red peppers or sundried tomatoes to the chicken mixture. Top with jarred alfredo sauce instead of the tomato sauce. Substitute chopped cooked shrimp or turkey for the chicken. Garnish with a little chopped basil or parsley.

Totally About to Go All Marie Kondo Up in Here

Do you ever feel like you are a master imitation of a broken record? I finally realized that’s exactly how I sounded when, for the 1000th time, I remarked to a friend this that it’s been a tough year. Scratch that, a tough four-plus years. After losing Dad last year, we went on to lose both our neighbor and good friend, followed shortly thereafter by my uncle. Considering that I already win the award for “Most Unhealthy Ways to Cope with Grief,” I’m not at all surprised that I’ve been operating on semi-toxic fumes for far too long.

But this last week, we took a long-planned family vacation, which was amazing, exhausting, and magical. When we came back to Louisiana, spring was in the air, with the wisteria in full bloom and the grass already filling in the winter-brown lawn. I know the hellfire summer is just around the corner, but something about coming home to a landscape transformed on the tails of a truly epic vacation gave me the kick in the ass I sorely needed. I spent the past couple of days thinking about what needs to change, and as the title suggests, I’m about to go Marie Kondo both literally and figuratively on myself, and my environment. It’s time for some physical, emotional, and spiritual spring cleaning, and part of that is returning to this space and getting back to the things that spark joy, as cheesy as that sounds.

So before I get back to it, let’s take the 50-cent recap of the past months, shall we?

First, I invested in an amazing smoker and subsequently smoked allllll the things, including all my neighbors’ Thanksgiving turkeys, lots of pork butts, bratwurst, and so on. One day, I want to volunteer with Operation BBQ, and help those suffering from disaster or displacement.

Bean joined the Cub Scouts!

She’s having a blast.

I knit a blanket for a special baby and won second place at the State Fair:

We did a winter garden of cabbage, broccoli, spinach, and carrots. (We also planted strawberries in the fall for a late spring/early summer harvest):

And finally, I finished all of the Knitterati 2018 blocks (though I have yet to assemble the blanket and add the border):

Oh, and one more project. Dad’s wife asked me to make pillows from some of his dress shirts:

So, even if I was not at my best this past year, I can say that I kept making. However, I think it’s time to dust off the cobwebs and realize that maybe there’s a bit more nuance between seemingly normal and truly healthy. If anything, at least my house will be cleaner…maybe. Probably.

Definitely maybe.

Summer’s End–Family, Community, and Canning.

School started this week, and for the first time, its arrival felt bittersweet. Usually, by this time, I feel like I will sell my soul to their teachers in exchange for removing the Heathens from my home for a few hours a day. August means we’ve devolved into who-looked-at-who the wrong way, which in turn, ends up being a crossover between “Who Moved My Cheese?” and The Hunger Games.  This year, however, summer seemed to fly by at a too-rapid pace. It doesn’t help that G-Man is a junior, Bear is a freshman, and Bean is in (gulp!) first grade. I wish I had a few more days at the pool or the camp, but in the end, the promise of less than 100-degree heat means that I’ll get over it quickly. So, the summer recap:

We had our epic family reunion with my 80-plus cousins who are just as zany as we are, fun days at the Gulf and the camp, questionable fishing, and general mayhem:

There was some knitting, which I will post about tomorrow:

I smoked and cooked at bit (including hosting 4th of July for our neighborhood, and tackling fresh pasta):

But, if I had to sum up this summer, I would call it The Summer of Canning. We spent the spring installing and planting several raised beds in our postage stamp-sized back yard. We hope to adopt a year-round gardening plan down the road, but ultimately, I think the Husband and I feel called to find a balance between the frantic digital pace of modern daily life, and the skills, traditions, and values that we internalized from our parents and grandparents.

We want to raise well-balanced, knowledgeable kids that have adequate life skills by graduation, or at least some exposure to many things and the attitude that they can figure crap out if they try. This isn’t just about gardening. G-Man must have changed tires on the family car six times this summer as we dealt with failing tires and those pesky nails the contractors down the road kept dropping. He also has a bank account, and I’ll send that kid to the Kroger at the drop of at hat, which means he now knows where to find vinegar and pectin, and the difference between a poblano and a banana pepper. G-Man and Bear can cook a meal, bake a mean cookie, and follow a recipe while adapting if needed. As such, the garden is another extension of our desire for fresh produce and deliciousness, while modelling life skills that might keep our kids from being left for zombie bait in the event of a Walking Dead scenario. Kidding…Kidding…

But, with that garden, came the dilemma of keeping up with it. I swore to the Husband that I would not let his efforts go to waste. I’ve written about canning before, but this behemoth was beyond my ability to manage, or at least my available time. But then, the blessing came. My neighbor had never canned and wanted to learn, so I did a quick recipe with her (that she brought over) so she could get the basics. One thing led to another. Before long, we transformed into a well-oiled operation of shared labor and shared bounty. We worked side-by-side each week, harvesting, prepping, and putting up recipe after recipe. We fought the bugs, the heat, our restless kids, and the burn of hot peppers from forgotten gloves. As the days blended together, we visited, shared stories and memories, and ended up with overflowing pantries of salsa, jalapeno jelly, serrano jelly, pickled peppers and onions, cucumber relish, pickles, spicy tomato jam, pickled jalapenos, and more.


We even put together and vacuum-sealed bacon-wrapped jalapeno poppers for fall and winter entertaining. A full pantry and freezer soothes my soul and makes me feel more connected to the strong women in my family tree. That was something I didn’t expect, but I’ll take any day.

Over these intense kitchen sessions, I noted to my neighbor that I can now see why chores like canning, quilting, butchering, and harvesting historically often turned into group events. People helped their neighbors or friends with these labor-intensive activities not only to share the load, but also to connect in a way we now have lost, and which we often miss in our disconnected, overworked, digital lives. (and yes, I get the irony of saying that on my digital blog, but I do believe we can all find a better balance between the power of the internet to connect and educate us, and the temptation for it to consume us at the expense of genuine experiences). Whether we were enveloped by steam from the canner, or got lost in the hours of chopping 12 pounds of tomatoes at a time, we strengthened our bonds as both friends and neighbors in a way that made me feel closer to her, and my family’s history and traditions.

So, as I come to summer’s end, I still feel like it flew by, but as I reflect, I also think of it as time of connecting with family and neighbors, cultivating skills, and transitioning from the tragedy of losing my father to letting the light back in. That, if anything, was probably the best takeaway of all.

But you know what’s even better about summer’s end? I can now plan the Halloween decorations and party. Mwhahahah!

Shoepeg Corn Salad–Cool Food for a Hot Day (And a Nearly Effortless Potluck Side Dish)

We had our family reunion last weekend, which is always such a fun and blessed time. We cooked, we laughed, we ate, we played games, and mostly, we continued the tradition of togetherness that my grandmother and her siblings created for us. It’s easy to get lost in the stress of the day-to-day, but when you come together with about 80 of your nearest and dearest, it’s a good reminder about remembering what’s important.

Anyway, I made a few dishes to contribute to the weekend, and this salad was a big hit. It’s a crisp, cool dish that is the perfect antidote to the hot summer days. It’s also an ideal contribution for potlucks. If you need a refreshing salad that is sure to help beat the heat, this is it!

Shoepeg Corn Salad

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Ingredients

  • 2 cans shoepeg corn, drained
  • 1 can English peas, drained (preferably Le Sueur brand)
  • 1 bunch green onions, chopped
  • 1 bell pepper, chopped
  • 1 cup chopped celery
  • 3/4 cup white vinegar
  • 1 TBS water
  • 1/2 cup vegetable oil
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1 tsp. black pepper

Procedure

    1. In a large bowl, combine corn, peas, green onions, bell pepper, and celery, stirring gently to combine.
    2. In a small saucepan, combine vinegar, water, oil, sugar, salt and pepper. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, and remove the mixture from heat as soon as it begins to boil. Let cool.
    3. Pour vinegar mixture over corn mixture, stirring to combine. Refrigerate at least 6 hours, better if overnight.

Friday Eating and Reading (As I Army-Crawl Across the School Year Finish Line)

It’s Friday, and I am still in the trenches of what we call the May Gauntlet around here. This month consists of three of my family of five’s birthdays, Mother’s Day, another trip to Science Olympiad Nationals for the Hubs and Bear after winning State, Confirmations, graduations, finals for G-Man, driving test for G-man, and yet another week-long business trip for the Hubs. I am, in a word, overdone.

Meanwhile, I’ve been sneaking in crafting, reading, and knitting time in at every possible moment, lest I allow my “End-of-the-year-and-I’m-over-it attitude” to spew out all over innocent bystanders. While I know I will probably want to let my kids run away and join a circus within two weeks of summer vacation, the prospect of a break from carpool lines, packing lunches, the daily uniform search/6 a.m. emergency washing panic, and unplanned trips to the school because I forgot it was our snack day (again), is the only thing separating me from insanity.

Anyway, here’s a few things I have been really into this week:

I just finished The Wishing Thread by Lisa Van Allen. Magic realism and knitting? Sign me up. I am a big fan of Sarah Addison Allen, so this seemed right up my alley. Overall, it’s a cute book, and one that I enjoyed. The narrative of the family ties, local lore, the subtle magic, and hope all made this a nice, pleasant read. If you just want a light, feel-good read similar to Addison Allen’s works, this is a good option.

I love Rick Bragg, who, among his numerous writing accolades, also has his essays featured in Southern Living every month. I’m only about a quarter of the way through this, but I am so totally in love with it. His writing brings to life the essence of the times and influences that defined my grandparents and parents (both good and bad). I started this on Mother’s Day morning, and it felt like a bittersweet balm on my soul. It reminds me of cooking with my mom, and all the stories she would tell of our grandparents and cousins, and the recipes that were simply learned by doing. I still suck at this whole grief thing, especially since I got the grief sandwich going on, but this book reminds me that the stories and traditions mean they will always be with me.

This orzo salad from Food Network definitely wins our dang tasty seal of approval. While I skip the red onion because picky eaters gonna pick, the recipe is perfect for a cool summer side dish (very important when we will reach nearly 100 degrees next week). A couple of notes on this one–I just mix the whole shebang together rather than this pointless staging. You would have to mix it before serving anyway, and artistic efforts are lost on The Heathens. Also, I have a possibly controversial view on pasta salad recipes. I always make 1.5 times of the dressing that any pasta salad recipe calls for, if not 2 times because they always end up drier than I want if I follow the recipe. Thus far, my over-doing-it on pasta salad sauce (for creamy-type sauces) hasn’t steered me wrong. You could also add rotisserie chicken to this for a complete meal, but if so, I would definitely double the sauce just to be safe. No one ever said “My Pasta Salad is too creamy.”  If they did, you should seriously side-eye them.

Time to fortify myself for the last week of school. That means whiskey, in case you didn’t know.

Chocolate Sheet Cake with Chocolate-Pecan Icing

I was missing Mom yesterday, so I decided to bake her chocolate sheet cake. This recipe is so dang easy, and the rich texture and decadent icing make it the ultimate comfort food when only chocolate will do. I used to inhale this for dessert with a big glass of milk, and it was one of the baking staples in my mom’s cooking routine.  She used to tell me that my grandmother would bake this cake every Friday so that she would have something chocolate for her five kids to snack on over the weekend.

I like it with the pecans, but you can leave them out of the icing or substitute them with another chopped nut of your choice.

Chocolate Sheet Cake with Chocolate-Pecan Icing

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Ingredients

Cake

  • 2 cups flour
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1/2 cup buttermilk
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 tsp. baking soda
  • 1 tsp. vanilla
  • 1 stick butter
  • 1 cup water
  • 1/2 cup shortening
  • 3 TBS cocoa

Icing

  • 1 stick butter
  • 3 TBS cocoa
  • 1 box of powdered sugar (1 pound)
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 6 TBS milk
  • 1 cup chopped pecans

Procedure

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour a 9×13 cake pan.
  2. In a large bowl, stir together flour, sugar, and salt and set aside. In a separate bowl, whisk together buttermilk, eggs, baking soda, and vanilla. Set aside.
  3. Place butter, water, shortening, and cocoa in a medium saucepan. Cook mixture over medium-high heat until butter and shortening are melted and mixture begins to boil. Remove from heat and immediately pour cocoa mixture into the flour fixture, whisking until combined. Add the buttermilk mixture and whisk until fully incorporated. Pour batter into prepared pan and bake for 20 to 25 minutes. Prepare icing while cake cooks because you will pour it over cake when it comes out of the oven.
  4. To make icing, melt butter in saucepan on medium-low. Add cocoa and stir until smooth. Add powdered sugar and vanilla, stirring well. Add the milk and whisk until smooth. Stir in pecans. Pour evenly over warm cake and it will set as it cools. Enjoy!

Community Cookbook Throwback Thursday–“Carrot Fritters”

**If this is your first visit, here’s the intro to my CCTT project.**

So, this week’s CCTT recipe comes from Talk About Good! which was published by the Junior League of Lafayette in 1967. Since it’s original publication, it has undergone 31 additional printings, with nearly 800,000 copies sold. This was another book I remember from Mom’s collection, and I managed to snag it at a local bookstore, giving me hope that I can recover some of that history. It definitely embodies the time period, with recipes that are staples, as well as curiosities that definitely show their age. In these recipes, I am learning more about my Mom and grandmothers, because they showcase a generation on a bridge. The rise of processed foods clearly has an impact, yet I can still see the traditions that stood the test of time. For example, my mom was convinced margarine was way better for you, but Hamburger Helper was for sad people who just didn’t know any better. In essence, she was a total purist with a blind spot for convenience foods that made life easier (I’m looking at you, canned biscuits). On to the matter at hand…

The devil-cold I thought I beat last week came raging back this week with the vengeance that only a secondary infection can bring, so I selected an easy recipe for this week. That’s also the reason I’m a day late with this post. Give me a demerit, with a chaser of decongestant, please. And alllllll the whiskey.

These “Carrot Fritters” were submitted by Mrs. Avery G. Landry and Ida Moran. The Heathen’s like carrots, and the husband can put a serious hurting on a traditional carrot soufflé, so I figured this was a safe bet for continuing to ease them into the prospect of regular kitchen experimentation.

The verdict? See the notes.

**Remember, I will copy the recipe exactly as written and provide my own notes, alterations,  and observations after**

Carrot Fritters

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Ingredients

  • 1-pound bag of carrots
  • 1 cup flour
  • 1 tsp. baking powder
  • 1/4 cup milk (scant)
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 2 tsp. butter
  • 1 egg

Procedure

  1. Boil scraped carrots until very tender. Chop hot carrots with dough blender until smooth, adding sugar and butter while still warm. Add egg and vanilla, blend in flour and baking powder and mix with a spoon. Add scant amount of milk, so that batter has consistency to be dropped by spoonfuls into hot cooking oil (this is not deep fat frying). Browning takes about 5 minutes.

My Notes

  • Ok, so to make this recipe clear, you want to cook your chopped carrots until tender (scraped just means peeled, but I don’t peel my carrots, so take that for what it’s worth). After that, I streamlined the recipe as follows:
  • After reading the recipe, I decided the food processor was the tool for the job. I put the butter and sugar in the Cuisinart, then added the cooked and drained carrots. I pulsed it briefly, then left it alone for about 5 minutes to cool off. (I did not want the egg to scramble in the hot mixture)
  • Next, I added the egg and vanilla, pulsed about three times, then added the flour and baking powder, and pulsed a couple of more times. Finally I added the milk a few tablespoons at a time (to be careful), but I ended up using all the milk. The result is a batter on the thicker side, and is cross between a fritter and a thick pancake.
  • I used a pretty large non-stick skillet and about a 1/3 to 1/2 cup of vegetable oil, which I heated on med-high heat. I dropped about an ice cream scoop-size spoonful of batter into the oil and browned the fritters on both sides, about 2-3 minutes per side.
  • These definitely taste like carrot soufflé fried like a pancake or fritter, which my husband loved. If you like carrot soufflé, you will love them.
  • The sugar content in these makes them brown fast and easily burn. You have to keep an eye on them and cook them at a slightly lower temp than you would cook traditional pancakes or fritters.
  • I thought they were a little too sweet, but everyone else loved them. Next time, I would add a pinch of salt to balance the sugar content, and I would try them with brown sugar instead of granulated to add a depth of flavor.
  • Finally, this recipe made about 5 decent-sized fritters for our family of 5, but they are so rich, this was PLENTY. I was worried, but one per person is a safe bet.
  • If you try a CCTT recipe, let me know! Also, if you have a vintage recipe to share, let me know too!

What’s for Dinner? A Link List of What We Are Eating This Week

I spend quite a but of time looking for new dinner inspiration, because my house full of picky eaters must find a balance with my need to try different recipes while also having a modicum of variety in my diet. The Heathens have come a long way, (and the Hubs, if less so), but I still often find myself fighting the need to stab someone with a fork when my answer to “What’s for dinner?” is met with the pained groans of children who think my lovingly prepared meals are a direct and premeditated form of torture.

So, I decided to throw up my plan for dinner this week, just in case you need a little inspiration.

Today: Slow Cooker Korean Beef with rice and sugar snap peas. (This recipe can easily be made in the Instant Pot, and she may have even posted a how-to on that. Kroger had chuck roast on sale this week, so this was a no-brainer for me. The savory-sweet-mild spice of this recipe offers a good compromise for everyone. As for the peas, I just steam them and toss them with a little butter and plenty of salt.)

Tuesday: Glazed Pork Chops with Crash Hot Potatoes and lima beans. (The glaze for the pork chops for this recipe is wayyyyyyyyyy too much, and read the reviews if you don’t believe me. I cut it down by half, which is good for the 6 chops I make with some leftover if needed.)

Wednesday: Sticky Apricot Drumsticks with rice and a yet-to-be determined veggie, probably something for the CCTT post. (Rather than use drumsticks in this recipe, I am going to use boneless, skinless chicken thighs to make it easier for the kids to eat.  This recipe seems weird, but trust me, it works.)

Thursday: Maple-Mustard Flat Iron Steaks with Blue Cheese-Pecan Confetti and Butternut Squash and Caramelized Onion Galette. (Yep, not really kid friendly, so I may add a more appealing side and leave off the blue cheese and pecans on the kids’ plates. However, every once in a while, the person doing the cooking gets to cook something she wants. Using pre-cut butternut squash in the air fryer cuts the prep time on the galette way down).

Friday: Probably going to try this version of Indian Butter Chicken for the Instant Pot. (I am fairly sure skepticism will cause Heathen bitching, but I at least know the husband likes Indian food, or at least what version we can get in NW Louisiana. This recipe seems to have great reviews, so maybe it will be a good gamble.)

So, there ya have it. A few ideas that may be worth checking out, but remember, if you are doing the cooking, it’s ok not to be the picky eater caterer on occasion. They will live, I promise.

Community Cookbook Throwback Thursday–“Broccoli with Rice” (aka Broccoli. Cheese and Rice Casserole

To kick off the first installment of CCTT, I decided to play it fairly safe and select a recipe I was reasonably sure everyone in this house would eat. (For info about my CCTT project, read here).

This recipe comes from Cotton Country, which was published by The Junior League of Monroe, Louisiana in 1972. The book includes over 1000 recipes, and this particular recipe was submitted by Mrs. Armand E. Breard.

I made this following the directions exactly, and both the husband and the Heathens liked it. You really never can go wrong with a good broccoli rice casserole, and this version is a tasty, basic recipe that is also quick and easy to throw together.

**For CCTT, I will post the recipe exactly as written in the cookbook, but provide my notes and interpretations at the end.**

Broccoli with Rice

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Ingredients

  • 1 stick butter
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 1 rib celery, chopped
  • 1 package frozen chopped broccoli
  • 1 can cream of chicken soup
  • 1 cup grated cheese or one small jar Cheese Whiz
  • 1-1/2 cups cooked rice
  • Tabasco
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • bread crumbs

Procedure

In a large skillet, sauté the onions and celery in butter until the vegetables are clear. Cook broccoli according to package directions; drain well. Mix broccoli with soup and cheese; add celery and onions. Stir in rice; season and mix well. Put into a greased casserole and top with bread crumbs. Bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes. This cam be mixed ahead and frozen.

My Notes

  • I used a package of steam-in-the-bag frozen broccoli and I think it was about 10 or 12 ounces
  • You can easily substitute cream of celery in this
  • I used Cheese Whiz, and I think a small jar is about 8 ounces. If you can’t find a small jar, just use half of the 15-ounce jar. If you go with grated cheese, NEVER use pre-shredded cheese in casseroles and sauces. The anti-caking agent they put on pre-shredded cheese to prevent sticking also prevents it from melting evenly and you won’t get the best result in any recipe.
  • I only added a couple of dashes of Tabasco to keep the Heathens from fussing too much.
  • I’d say I probably added 3/4 tsp. salt and 1/2 tsp. of pepper for the seasoning, but just play it by ear.
  • When she says “clear” in reference to the veggies, she just means translucent/softened.
  • You can use seasoned breadcrumbs for this or plain.
  • Usually, the term “casserole” means a 9×13 dish, but when I added the mixture, it ended up being a pretty thin layer in the pan. Next time, I will use a smaller dish or double the recipe.
  • This would be a great potluck dish or side for a big gathering.
  • You could turn this into a full meal by adding cooked chicken, but I would consider increasing the sauce by half to accommodate the chicken.

 

 

Coming Soon: “Communty Cookbook Throwback Thursday”–A Haphazard Journey Through Grief and Seriously Questionable Coping Mechanisms.

See the source image

***Insert meaningful and insightful intro here…or not***

Before my mom passed away, she amassed quite the cookbook collection, many of which she inherited from her mother, or were gifts from the dozens of cousins, aunts, etc. that make up my huge, southern, zany extended family. And that’s where this post and the new series on my blog begins…

I remember spending hours flipping through those books, and not really understanding all of the history they contained, or what they represented to my mother. I would sit at her small, marble-topped kitchen table, turning the wrinkled, dog-eared pages while she miraculously bent our tiny, galley kitchen to her culinary will. Often, she’d pause mid-dinner prep to wash my cornsilk-like hair in the sink, setting a towel on the edge to cradle my neck before sending me off to a proper bath.

I always knew when she was feeling particularly down or frustrated, because that’s when she would fry chicken. After I had kids, she confessed that cooking our traditional fried chicken dinner (with rice, gravy, peas, and biscuits…preferably with mayhaw jelly), was a mental and emotional escape. She found that cooking that meal was the closest connection she could find to her own childhood memories, as well as a unique therapy when tackling the more difficult of life’s challenges.

When we moved to California, Mom was alone in a new place with no family and support system, which looking back, must have been incredibly lonely for her. Sometimes, her loneliness seemed like an invisible raincloud that blanketed our home, and she retreated to the kitchen like it was the only connection to her family and sense of home she could find.  I also remember that, during these low periods,  she pulled out the same few cookbooks from her collection, which were published works from the assorted regional chapters of Louisiana’s Junior League, churches, or other community cookbooks.

When she wanted to try something new, those were the books she looked to for a familiar foundation. Unlike a nationally published cookbook full of glossy photographs of culinary perfection, Mom was more inclined to try a new recipe that she knew came from the communities of her home state (as well as what came from her mother’s and aunts’ generation), and I think these books helped ease the homesickness that seemed to be her constant companion during those years. Other than the familiar recipes and techniques of her up-bringing, any recipe experiments began with a foray into those collections for research she felt she could trust. Looking back, I see that they were more like dictionaries and encyclopedias for a generation that wouldn’t see accessible internet or even unlimited long-distance calls for many years to come

By the time I was in middle school, I knew that the chocolate pie recipe I liked was in The Revel, the Christmas cookie recipe was in Cotton Country, and if I could not remember which recipes she had tried, I could always see her handwritten code in the margins to clue me in (a “check-plus-plus” meant she really liked it). I didn’t realize until we moved home, and I had spent more time with my extended family, that the various Louisiana Junior League  and community cookbooks from that era were staples in every kitchen. Growing up in southern California, I did not realize how much community cookbooks were such an ingrained part of our Louisiana culture.

Unfortunately, I don’t have access to Mom’s cookbook collection, so when I stumbled across a copy of Cotton Country at a local bookstore, I snatched it up and ran to the register like I was Indiana Jones avoiding that whole boulder issue. What is amazing about the iconic cookbooks of the various chapters of the Louisiana Junior League (published in the 60’s and 70’s) and local churches, is that they continue to be staples in many of our homes, which is why I was able to find this one. For example, Cotton Country was published in 1972 by the Junior League of Monroe, with a first printing of 10,000 copies. Since that time, the book has gone through 21 additional printings, with some topping 60,000 copies per printing, and the most recent being 5,000 in 2016. The book I purchased is identical to the original publication, with the only upgrade being a hardback binding that replaced the annoying comb binding. The book has no photographs, hundreds of recipes, lots of original artwork, and demonstrates just how much a labor of love these books were for their creators. I remarked to my husband about how much work these books were for local communities, because they were complied long before we had computers and software to streamline the process. From the meticulous index to the sheer volume of recipes, I imagine this book, and those like it, was a momentous undertaking and a great source of pride for the women who created it.

As I flip through the recipes, they seem like a microcosm of a by-gone era, both good and bad. I see how much they focused on entertaining (some have notes “will feed 25 for appetizers, or 12 for entrees”), which is something I think we all could use a little more of (entertaining, that is). I feel like the more digitally connected we get, the less meaningfully connected we become to our friends and neighbors, and that a little real togetherness could do us all some good.  These books also often give the ambiguous language of seasoned cooks (“just add to your taste”), which definitely reminds me of the women in my family, and why growing the confidence in cooking through experience is important in familial development.

However, along with all the feel-good nostalgia, I also know that these books also reflect the imbalances of race, gender, and socioeconomic classes that were just as much a part of those decades as beautiful Crab Mornay in elegant silver chafing dishes. In fact, each recipe in my recent purchase features the contributors’ names not as their own, but as a subset of their husbands. For example, rather than see “Mrs. Ann Smith,” you see “Mrs. John Smith,” a tradition that luckily seems to have faded slowly as modern South catches up. If anyone ever tried to call me “Mrs. Bayou-Husband,” I’d probably snort my cocktail right out of my nose. I well know that as charming as many of these books are, and the nostalgia they trigger, we could uncover an entire underlying narrative of racial and class dynamics that deserves acknowledgement, and that I could never do the justice that it deserves.

So, let’s circle back around to what this post is really about. A couple of months ago, I lost my father suddenly, and without warning. I’m trying to process the year-after-year grief sandwich life keeps serving me, losing my grandmother, mother, and father in such a short, successive time. After Mom died, that grief was like acid, eating away at me and it’s pretty much been a self-pity party ever since. This was a trauma I did, and do not, handle well. Except for those times when I kick myself in reminder that I am so blessed, it’s ridiculous. I wallow, but I also kick my own ass nearly everyday because perspective is the first step to a more graceful approach to the grief sandwich digestion project.

I think one of the most difficult parts of losing both parents is that I also feel like I lost a connection to my grandparents, because my parents helped keep their histories alive through their own stories and memories (though I was truly blessed to have my grandmother on Dad’s side live to see all of her great-grandchildren born and to be here for me into my mid-30’s). My mom regaled me of stories of her mom, including that she was a master sewer though my mom could not sew a stitch. I’m scared that I’ll lose those pieces in the telling of the stories to my own kids, and that they lost their own maternal grandparents at such a young age, when I had most of mine into my late teens to 30’s. I had the village. My kids’ village has shrunk in ways they will never know how to miss, but it also encourages me to embrace what’s still here.

I decided that one way to try and prevent an even deeper dive into the unhealthy grief sandwich starts with these cookbooks that defined so much of both my mom’s life, but also all the people in my crazy, zany, lovable family. Both Mom and Dad carried emotional weights from their own upbringings, and I want to learn from what worked and what didn’t. As a crafter, cook, and general maker, of course my approach starts with “PROJECT!!!”

I’m starting a new segment on the blog called “Community Cookbook Throwback Thursday” in which I will make a recipe from an old Junior League, church, or otherwise community cookbook close to me. You will see an unvarnished attempt at the recipe of the week, even if it fails epically, as well as my notes on how to translate the vague portions and directions into coherent words for an actually repeatable recipe.

So, if you actually managed to read this, you get a gold star! Stay tuned for culinary adventures and plenty of mishaps. And maybe, by the end of this little or big experiment, grief won’t be quite such a four-letter word. No promises there, but I promise a good cocktail along the way.