We'll be running essays about food memories on Feed52. Today, cookbook author Lukas Volger remembers his mother.
Growing up, I loved to cook with my Mom. We were a team when she hosted dinner parties or planned holiday meals, and every Sunday when she’d sit down at the table to map out the following week of dinners, drawing inspiration from a stack of clipped coupons she stored in an envelope that was always near to bursting, I sat with her and helped brainstorm menu ideas. She wasn’t necessarily an adventurous cook, mostly because she wasn’t comfortable improvising in the kitchen—she liked to follow recipes—but she loved when she found a recipe that worked. Many of her favorites were passed onto her by friends, or clipped from the newspaper, magazines like Ladies’ Home Journal and McCall’s, or any of her Junior League of Boise cookbooks.
She also subscribed to Bon Appetit and Cooking Light, and during the overlap when she had subscriptions to both magazines (she later cancelled Bon Appetit because she thought it was getting “too weird”), we’d read them together. In the winter we’d sit by the fireplace in the family room, and in the summer we’d sit on lawn chairs in the back yard, shifting around as the patches of sunlight moved, flipping through and earmarking those magazines, swapping them when we finished.
As far as the actual cooking went, I enjoyed making the foods she wasn’t inclined to make herself. She had a thing against yeast, believed that it had a thing against her, and so this meant that I wanted to experiment with bread. I made sandwich bread that was spongy, baguettes that were dense, and cinnamon-swirl bread that somehow failed to be sweet. I also loved baked goods: biscotti, lace cookies, and, once, a three-layer chocolate-strawberry cake. I mostly followed recipes, too, but as I got a little older I experimented. I was prone to fits of inspiration that were good ideas in theory, but failed in execution. One time I added a secret ingredient to our standard chocolate chip cookies. Fresh out of the oven, I gave one to Mom and dared her to guess what that ingredient was. She took a bite and immediately started coughing. “Cloves,” she said, guessing correctly.
What I also enjoyed around this time, besides the cooking, was the typing up of the recipes. Mom would have a friend over and they’d start talking about what great thing they cooked recently. There were her Mexican Roll-Ups, a blend of cream cheese, olives, and chilies that she’d spread onto flour tortillas, roll-up, and slice, serving the pinwheels with a bowl of salsa for dipping. Or, “You won’t believe it. It’s two cans of black beans”—here she’d start numbering the ingredients on her hand—“a jar of salsa, and a can of Progresso black bean soup. That’s it! I’ll give you the recipe.” I was always lingering near the kitchen, so after she dug it up from her recipe box or manila folder stuffed with Xeroxes and clippings, I’d snag it from her, skip downstairs to the office, and happily type it up for our guest. Sometimes I’d take liberties as I typed, explaining a step or ingredient in greater detail, or omitting words I thought were unnecessary. (I inherited this editing instinct from my dad, an accountant, who would read all my English papers in junior high with a red pen in his hand.)
These lemon bars are the first recipe I ever “wrote.” That’s a generous way of describing the process, as they’re essentially the marriage of two different lemon bar recipes I’d tried. The topping is from Cooking Light. In that recipe they seem to have excised all but the bare minimum of butter from the crust so that what remains is something like a vaguely sweet, stale pita. But the topping is tangy, not too sweet, and gelled in a way that I still think is terrific. (I’m not a big fan of super custardy textures.) The other recipe, and I can’t remember its source, has a crust that’s rich and tender, but its topping is much too sweet, and, more offensively, it jiggles. So it felt like a stroke of genius, at the age of 15, to assemble my own take on lemon bars this way. They immediately became “Lucas’ Luscious Lemon Bars”—a name that, okay, I penned—and went down as an original contribution to the family’s culinary heritage.
I made them many times as a teenager. But over time, as I replaced them with new favorites from an ever-increasing repertoire, they worked their way to the back of the file folder. Then the other day I was thinking what might be a good way to observe Mother’s Day, one of the more difficult holidays since she died almost 7 years ago. I saw a lemon bar recipe floating around on Facebook, and that brought this one swiftly to mind.
It might seem misguided to pick one of “my” recipes to share on Mother’s Day. But in every way I strive to give my mom the autonomy I didn’t consider recognizing until after she died—essentially, that she was more than just my mom, that she had a whole life besides me; on the 1-year memorial of her death I decided to tattoo her initials on my right shoulder, deliberately choosing “PZV” over “MOM”—I keep coming to the line in Meghan O’Rourke’s book The Long Goodbye: “A mother is a story with no beginning. That is what defines her.” That is what defines her and, I might add, what explains my limitation of being able to think of her in any other way. So when it comes down what I want to celebrate her for, and what she meant to me, this recipe and its genesis neatly encapsulates how I remember her the most fondly. She gave me permission.
This recipe is as much a blueprint for a budding recipe writer as it is for life: Hold onto what works, get rid of what doesn’t. If you’re lucky you’ll end up with Lucas’ Luscious Lemon Bars. If you’re even luckier, they’ll be your mom’s favorite lemon bars. They may not actually be ingenious, but she’ll boast of your ingeniousness to anyone who’ll listen, and she’ll remember them for the rest of her life.
Lucas’ Luscious Lemon Bars
Makes 16 squares
1 cup flour
1/4 cup confectioners sugar
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened slightly and cut into 1/2-inch cubes
3/4 cup sugar
1/3 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice, from about 1-1/2 large, heavy lemons
3 tablespoons flour
2 teaspoons lemon zest, from 1 large lemon
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
Confectioner's sugar, for dusting