Family Reunions & a Grandmother’s Cookie Recipe - No. 23
Plus tips for planning your own family reunion
A few summers ago my cousin Mary planned a Carr family reunion. We were grateful that she offered to invite, entice - coerce? - 55 cousins from 11 states to gather in Nashville while our last aunt (Mary Jo) was still with us.
I would not have had the patience to press everyone for contact info, assemble the masterful Excel document, or herd the cats, so to speak, but Mary saw this as her mission to help us keep in touch.
Summer is all about family reunions, and this summer, in particular, seems ripe for reunions. I asked Mary this week if she’d do the family reunion again, and her answer was “absolutely!”
The best part was “all of us standing in the place where our grandmother was born and grew up.”
And the food. Family reunions have always been about food.
Recipes with names on them
A recipe with a name attached has been my way of knowing which recipes in a community cookbook I’m going to make. There, I said it. The truth is out of the bag.
And I’m in good company because Eudora Welty wrote in her foreword to The Jackson Cookbook that to make a recipe with a name attached is to celebrate that person once more.
“Recipes, in the first place, had to be imparted - there was something oracular in the transaction - and however often they were made after that by others, they kept their right names.” - Eudora Welty
Dee’s Cheese Date Cookies, Purcell’s Afternoon Teas, Bebe’s Chess Cake, Louise’s Damn Good Chocolate Cake, Elizabeth’s Banana Pudding, and Sadie Peck’s Iced Tea - a tea punch with mint, lemons, and oranges from my husband’s last family reunion. These are all recipes in our box, served at family gatherings, at reunions, and as Eudora Welty so beautifully said, they’ve kept their right names.
A recipe reminds us of the person who created it, cooked it, fed it to us when they’re not here anymore. And once that person is gone, from that moment forward, that recipe takes on a life of its own.
Barbecue, fried chicken and getting along
Regardless of where you live in this country, your dietary habits, or even your political views, there are just some foods that seem to appeal to all of us. I’m thinking barbecue and fried chicken.
Even for the vegetarian who doesn’t partake of them, they cry out for a smorgasbord of side dishes and anchor a potluck when everyone contributes a dish. And they seem to bring us together at the table for conversation.
Leah Chase knew this well. She was the queen of Creole cooking and proprietor of the Dooky Chase restaurant in New Orleans. She fed U.S. Presidents, civil rights leaders, and long ago provided a nice restaurant where Blacks could dine during segregation.
Leah Chase died two summers ago. But I was fortunate enough to have interviewed her about fried chicken several years before. A longtime colleague, Judy Walker, suggested we go to Dooky Chase for lunch. It was located on the same Katrina-flooded corner as it had been for more than 50 years.
Piled a foot high in a giant chafing dish, alongside red beans and rice as well as creamy sweet potatoes and green beans on the buffet line, the fried chicken was crisp, moist, perfectly seasoned, so delicious that whatever was on your mind, whatever agenda you might have had before the meal, you couldn’t think about anything but that chicken. And Leah Chase told me that fried chicken was her secret for getting people to come together as one.
Family reunions as recipe preservation
I was reminiscing with my friend Susan about our family’s reunion, and she mentioned that a lot of reunions these days, as well as funeral visitations, are catered.
“No one takes it on,” she said. “It’s sad. All these family recipe legacies are fading away because of convenience.”
Feeding everyone can be a chore. At the reunion, you need a kitchen to warm things up and cool things down. And people need to be able to bring their recipe with them if they’re traveling by car or be able to create it in a kitchen once they’ve arrived.
Bottom line: Buy the barbecue or fried chicken and let everyone else supply the sides.
And print the recipes!
We went so far as to have some of our family’s dessert recipes printed on recipe cards and bundled together with twine. But even photocopies work as do email attachments. Because as human beings we have good intentions. We say we’re going to stay connected, to see each other more often after the reunion is over.
But then we get back into our regular routine of school and work and hobbies, and we don’t. And then we run across those recipes that remind us and take us back to the summer when everyone got together, a time when they didn’t disagree, just savored fried chicken and barbecue, beans, cole slaw, maybe a squash casserole and homemade rolls, a cousin’s garden tomatoes or cantaloupe slices, and scads of desserts.
And until we do see each other again, that recipe is a placeholder. It’s a keeper of memories.
Do you have family reunion favorite recipes? Best or worst memories from a family reunion?
This Friday for my Subscribers:
I’ll share another family reunion recipe, a cookie we tend to bake all year long. And I’ll share that family reunion tea punch recipe, too. It’s a great recipe for crowds.
What salt do you cook and bake with?
Sea, kosher, regular old-fashioned salt? Does salt matter to you?
And now….a recipe from our family reunion!
Dee’s Cheese Date Cookies
My grandmother Dee was widowed when my mother was 12 and raised five daughters on her own. Dee didn’t have a lot of time for baking, but when she did bake, it was memorable. These Cheese Date Cookies were the recipe she baked each Thanksgiving, and I can recall as a child everyone gathering around her cookie tray and oogling. The cookies exercised every one of your taste buds! The dates made them sweet and sticky, the pecans crunchy, and the cheddar cheese salty and wonderfully complementary. Dates were a common grocery ingredient when our grandmothers were baking. Today, you don’t see them that much in recipes. I look for pitted dates in the produce department where the store stocks dried fruit. You need to finely chop the dates and combine them with finely chopped pecans, and it takes some time, but it can be done a day ahead and set aside, covered, at room temperature. As for dusting the baked cookies with sugar? Completely up to you! I like them both ways!
Makes about 6 dozen (72) cookies
Prep: 25 to 30 minutes
Bake: 15 to 20 minutes
1/2 cup (4 ounces) unsalted butter, at room temperature
8 ounces (2 cups) shredded sharp cheddar cheese
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 pound pitted dates, well chopped
3/4 cup finely chopped pecans
1/2 cup confectioners' sugar
1. Place the butter, cheese, flour, and salt in a large mixing bowl, and with an electric mixer blend the mixture until it looks like coarse crumbs. Continue blending or working with your hands until the mixture comes together into a ball. Flatten it out, wrap in plastic and place in the refrigerator overnight.
2. The next day, make the filling by combining the chopped dates and pecans. Set aside. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Remove the dough from the refrigerator, and cut it into two halves. Work with one half at a time. Return the other to the fridge to stay cold.
3. Lightly flour a work surface, and roll the dough out to 1/4-inch thickness. With a knife, cut it into rough 1 1/2-inch squares. Place a teaspoon of filling onto each square. Roll the filling into the dough like a small jellyroll. Press the dough to seal any cracks, and place the cookie on a baking sheet. Bake about 18 at a time until they are golden brown and firm, from 15 to 20 minutes.
4. Remove the cookies from the oven, transfer to a wire rack, and when cool enough to handle dredge in powdered sugar, if desired. Let cool before serving. Repeat with the remaining dough and filling.
Last but not least, here are some of my cousin Mary’s tips for planning your own family reunion:
Start planning early! 18 months in advance of the date is not too soon. And more people are likely to attend.
Put together an up-to-date list of all family members. Name, address, phone number, email for each person. Also ask for children’s names in each family and ages. Best if you can record information in an Excel spread sheet.
Take all email addresses and create a “Group Distribution List” for communicating with everyone at the same time. This will save you a lot of time down the road.
Start sending group emails to see - this is the cat herding part - how many people are interested in a Family Reunion, and if the response is good, proceed!
Narrow the dates and place down to two choices, and get the group to vote by email on the final choice. The more invested family members are in planning, the more likely they are to attend.
Once you have defined the dates and locations, start planning the events that will bring the family together during those times.
And remember the extras like games, prizes (artwork and crafts from family members) and how you are going to share photos of the event.