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HOLLENBECK: Some things are better left alone — like Mamma’s recipes

June 13, 2011

Through the years a number of local people have asked for my mother’s spaghetti recipe.
That’s almost like trying to find the proverbial needle in the haystack.
Mamma didn’t have real recipes, though she had cookbooks holding all kinds of scribblings on sheets she had stuck inside them.
This past week I made an attempt at detailing how to make her wonderful spaghetti. My effort was included in the Grits & Grace page that featured Courier employees’ recipes.
If I had been reading it for the first time — as most people did — I would have thrown up my hands and said, “You’ve gotta be kidding. This isn’t a recipe; it’s at best a guide and a poor one at that.”
Whoever might have thought that would have been right.
Mamma didn’t measure, but she was “a real cook.” She just got in there and did it and, amazingly, succeeded. Over and over and over.
She loved to cook and her spaghetti was known well beyond the boundaries of Cotton Plant to be “the best.” She could cook 10 or 100 or more without batting an eye and thrived on doing such.
Sometimes she got tired from cooking, but she never tired of cooking. It was her thing.
When I showed the recipe — a term I use loosely — that I included in the Courier page, I asked our resident chef/caterer, Pat Stuckey, if she could prepare it from what I submitted.
“Oh, yes,” she said, but then she’s like Mamma. She’s a real cook who can figure out the missing pieces if the recipe doesn’t give the whole story.
Normal people cook with teaspoons and tablespoons; Mamma cooked with dashes and dollops. You had to just figure out where she was going with something and maybe you might get to the same place she did, but then maybe not.
When she gave me her recipe for chicken and rice — son Allen’s favorite dish — it included nothing about first frying the chicken that she used for topping the rice dish.
I asked her if the chicken just cooked along with the rice in the oven and she looked at me as if I had three heads.
“Lynda Lou!” she exclaimed. “Of course you fry the chicken in a skillet on top of the stove first. Anybody would know that.”
Call me Nobody. I didn’t know.
As far as I know, Mamma’s only culinary failure was pie crust. She claimed to have tried many times to turn out a successful crust and didn’t, so that was the end of it. My mother didn’t bother with things she didn’t do well.
She apparently learned about not measuring from my grandmother, whose biscuits died with her.
I’ve never tasted biscuits anywhere since that came anywhere close to Grandma’s. They were a cross between a roll and a biscuit.
I’ve heard people rave about “light, flaky biscuits,” setting up that description as the goal to reach.
Grandma’s weren’t like that at all. Her biscuits had texture and they were just as good cold as they were piping hot from the oven. When I was at her house and wanted a snack, I much preferred a biscuit instead of a cookie.
You’d think with this kind of heritage that I would have turned out to be a halfway-decent cook, but it didn’t happen that way. Those genes that went from Grandma Katie to Mamma Lillie passed right over Granddaughter Lynda.
I get my biscuits out of a Pillsbury can and, most of the time, my spaghetti comes from a Stouffer’s box (cheesy spaghetti bake).
I can make Mamma’s spaghetti from scratch, figuring it out as I go, but I haven’t done it in a long time. You just keep adding stuff and stirring. Then you add more stuff and stir some more. On and on, ad infinitum.
The last time I made it was the first Thanksgiving after Mamma was in the nursing home at Arkansas Health Center.
Because everything was different with her not being with us, I decided to do a non-traditional meal and make her spaghetti.
I did that only once. Daughter Karen’s feelings were hurt.
“Where’s the turkey and dressing and the green bean casserole?” she whined.
And Mamma added to my dilemma by refusing to eat when she didn’t get her meal at the exact time everyone else did in the facility.
We had told the nursing home staff to give her just a snack because we were bringing her a dish of her spaghetti. It took longer to do the spaghetti than I had remembered, so we were late.
Mamma was mad, Karen was pouting and I was exhausted.
And now I thank the Stouffer Co. for the product that at least resembles Mamma’s dish.
There are some things you just can’t fully replicate and may as well leave alone.

Lynda Hollenbeck is associate editor of the Courier.
lyndahol@yahoo.com

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