Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Recipe for life

I flip through my recipes, looking for the one for refrigerator pickles. My friend asked for it after coming over for dinner to celebrate five years of living in Kalimantan, Indonesia . We sat together on the plane ride that flew us far from familiarity—her face the only thing that stayed the same over the years. The burgers we grilled celebrated the longest time I’ve ever lived anywhere—and ironically, it happens to be in a country not exactly my own, though it becomes more so each year.

I stop at the crinkled card for yogurt. The ingredients are blurred, from years of powdered-milk-coated fingers and from the tears in my eyes. The friend who wrote this one out has known me since I moved here five years ago, back when I was green and confused and a bad cook. She had already been here for five years when I moved here, a voice of wisdom and kindness that helped me learn to do more than just cook. That friend moves in three weeks and takes with her a part of the history of both me and her from this place. Besides this and other recipes, she leaves behind most of her baby stuff in my kids’ room—the crib both her children and mine have used, my son’s favorite toy car, clothes that look adorable on my baby girl, and all that advice that I so needed as a young, sleep-deprived mom. I have her yogurt recipe memorized now, and have passed it onto other women who were green, scribbling it in my own hand.

I see the recipe for Putri Salju (Indonesian for Snow Princess), given by a friend who has a religion and culture quite different from mine. But our love for our kids, cooking and each other brought us close huddled over my pan to bake the perfect cookie named after, ironically, precipitation that my friend has never seen. But who needs snow when powdered sugar coats our kids’ bilingual lips?

I flip through the recipes from my mom in her swirly handwriting that brings comfort in an age in which I see her typing through emails more often than her writing by hand. She passed down her and my favorite recipes, painstakingly writing out dozens to give me when I first got married and relied heavily on her and Dad’s example about how to be married. They hold memories of family dinners, comfort cookies, and holiday traditions. I’ve carried her down-home recipes and their wedded example to Texas, Alaska and then to Indonesia. They now simmer and bake in my hot tropical kitchen where July 4th looks just like Christmas, except for the smells. They make this home feel like a past that I miss and love and need in order to taste and enjoy the present.

My kitchen also holds recipes in cooking books given to me by friends throughout the years. There’s the one advertising just five ingredients or less in each recipe—given to me back when I thought cooking was heating up the frozen lasagna from Wal-Mart. Another teaches how to cook just once a month. It was given by another friend concerned with how I’d manage to cook daily in a small village in Alaska with no stores or restaurants, when the airplane brought in my groceries every few weeks. My kitchen was small and I was just learning, but the view of the mountains above the kitchen sink was incredible.

Tucked in among the books is the one that has roots. It contains recipes of women who were my grandmother’s friends and relatives and neighbors—women who may now be dead or in nursing homes. They are from the place I never lived as I moved around as a kid. But her small farmhouse became a home I love and still miss. I see the ones my grandmother contributed. They remind me of huge meals, always with desert, in her home that was a refuge for a girl with a heart broken by never-ending good-byes. And I miss my grandmother who still lives, but doesn’t remember and can’t cook anymore. I am thankful for recipes that will out-last her failing body, that I can pass onto my own grandchildren, who will surely need fattening up with homemade chocolate pudding.

The view from my kitchen has changed over the years, and my box fills with more and more instructions on cooking and tried-and-true recipes. They’ve become a journal of sorts to remind me of lessons I’ve learned in measurements of cups and tablespoons, not just as a cook, but as a little girl, a new wife, a young mom and a pioneer on an island on the other side of the world. They are friends who were, who are, and who will be in a life that changes, but still enjoys licking the bowl.

I write out the recipe for my friend—the one for refrigerator pickles—tweaking it from this copy to show what I’ve learned on how to make it taste even better.


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