Good food is worth a thousand words—sometimes more! In My Family Recipe, a writer shares the story of a single dish they've inherited, and why it's meaningful to them.
Lerotha Guy, my Big Ma, was everything you could need in a grandmother. She was the matriarch of our bloodline. She kept her often-frequented house stocked and well-oiled, safe from literal hurricanes and metaphorical ones too. She wasn’t the type of grandma to wrap you tightly in candied words and cuddles. She was too busy picking up the slack my granddaddy left for her, running the home for all the babies, teens, and even the adults who stumbled into her open doors and onto her crunchy, vacuum-sealed couch. That couch stuck to our skin under Florida’s notorious heat, but I'm sure she was tired of scrubbing the food stains off of it, so she was smart to suffocate it in plastic.
In between the night shifts that ended at 2 a.m. and the morning shifts that lasted until mid-afternoon, Big Ma found ways to cook everything we still crave today: oxtail stew, creamed corn, cornbread, sweet spaghetti, where the sauce-to-noodle ratio was fixed because she combined them into one deep pot. Big Ma made unrivaled liver and onions, batches of stuffing that aunts and uncles would grab from deep in the freezer Thanksgiving mornings, because there was no chance they could replicate hers in time. She pan-fried a lot of seafood, and often caught her own catfish for dinner.
But when it came to sharing her recipes, Big Ma did not have as generous a spirit—she kept those close to her heart. And you could only enter the kitchen when you were invited, usually after all the cooking was done.
The procedure for us (my father’s wife and kids) usually went as follows:
Every Sunday afternoon, we’d enter her house through its green-painted door and be greeted by her, the sticky plastic couch, and her TV set, which was usually mumbling something about an intercepted throw made by the Dolphins. She’d pace from the living room and into the kitchen hollering and fussing enough to drown out the sports commentator. Her grumbles and the occasional CHEAT! would rattle from behind the pots on the stove as she stirred them, until she’d eventually call out: “There’s some food in here…y'all come on and make yourselves a plate.”
Some days I’d enter into Big Ma’s kitchen and watch as she approached the landscape of assorted pots and pans arranged on the stove. She’d take her time lifting the lid of each to peak inside. An apricot hue would flash under her chin—brown sugared yams, I realized. And she’d spoon a little onto her plate before unveiling the next pot of secrets.
On the cluttered table adjacent to the stove, Big Ma always kept dessert for after dinner. She had a total of four desserts she kept on rotation: her impossibly creamy egg custard (that recipe rests in the care of my uncle, the youngest of my Big Ma’s kids), a perfect sour cream pound cake, her sweet potato pie, and, on serendipitous days, a plate of her fluffy, fat peanut butter cookies, which sat underneath rumpled sheet of aluminum. Pray you stumble in on one of those days.
Big Ma died almost 10 years ago, when I was a 19-year-old undergrad living across the country. Even then, it had been years since I had tasted her desserts, but I still thought about those cookies. There was no family cookbook to refer to, not even scribbled notes on index cards to guide us. We only had our memories and each other—a pool of disconnected descendants, each with the other person’s phone number far down in their contact list, and each with a nagging craving for something they didn't know the formula for. What turns my stomach the most, what leaves it unsteady and weak, is that my memories of my Big Ma are fading just as fast as my memory of her peanut butter cookies.
So when I decided to revive those cookies—the only one of Big Ma’s desserts nobody in my family has the recipe for—a small part of me hoped that it would revive memories of her, too.
I called different family members: two cousins, one uncle, his only sister. But chasing down Big Ma’s recipes is like playing a game of Telephone—the plastic cup kind—when you’re left hanging on a string of miscommunications you’re supposed to piece together into something coherent. In the end, you’re so confused that you wind up falling back on your own memory and intuition anyway.
Each person I called answered with awkward stutters and choppy bits of useless information. “Oh man… Oh… Huh… I don’t know, well… Lemme give your cousin Erica a call, she might know.” But when Erica got on the phone, she said, “Flour, eggs, butter...um, peanut butter... (Long pause.) Maybe call my mom; she might have it?"
At points in my search, I suspected that my auntie, Big Ma’s only daughter, signed some pact to keep her recipes hidden and safe from seeping out into the world. Was she just, in the words of Big Ma, flimflamming us? We couldn’t all be this clueless, could we? From past experiences, when anyone would ask for one of Big Ma’s recipes, someone might dubiously cough it up over the phone if you pressed them hard enough, but the “recipe” would just be a list of ingredients with no guidance on assembly.
Take, for example, my mom’s attempt at Big Ma’s famous pound cake: When mom made it, it was as flat and as dense as a pancake. How was she supposed to know the “1 cup of butter” was supposed to be creamed, not melted?
But I didn’t give up on my hunt. Even if all I could get was a list of ingredients, I was confident enough in my baking skills to combine them properly on my own.
I rang my sister, who told me to ring my dad, who was out golfing with his older brother, Greg, the oldest of my Big Ma's kids. He had the most information to offer.
Uncle Greg spoke through the speaker, overpowering my father’s voice like any big brother might. He told me about his childhood in that same house we all grew up in, the same one with the now-green door. He told me how he’d watch Big Ma make these cookies on days after she’d visit the Civic Center. “She’d come home with that block of government cheese and the huge pail of peanut butter, and oh man!” He nearly laughed recounting the gallon-sized tin can and how she’d pry it open before discarding the thick head of oil that separated from the solids as it sat. He told me about eating the fresh baked cookies immediately from the oven, how soft they were, attributing it to the peanut butter’s heavy refinement. My dad spoke up too, confirming his big brother’s tales, adding in details about their honey color and strong peanut flavor.
I decided to take the collection of descriptors from them both along with my own recollection of Big Ma’s bronzed cookies, and tried to bring them to life in my own kitchen. But while I was throwing in a little of this and a little of that into my mixing bowl, I could feel Big Ma’s spirit whispering crossly in my ear about each deviation. She was stubborn and opinionated. I could see her crumpling her forehead, puckering her lips, and throwing her curled fists up beside her breasts (like she did when something irked her), before announcing her deep disapproval.
“What’s this you’re putting up in here now, child? What’s that? I don’t know about that sesame oil!”
“It just makes sense here!” I argued, in my head. In college, after late nights stuffing my face with peanut soba noodles, and other lazy nights repurposing those same ingredients over day-old rice, I learned that sesame oil magnifies peanut butter’s taste.
At that moment, I knew whatever peanut butter cookies I made with my own hands would never be a true replication of Big Ma’s cookies, only Big Ma’s cookies through my own eyes—an abstraction of my past, kneaded like dough, with whom I’ve become. So maybe the point was much bigger than creating a twin cookie. She never did want to share her secrets while living, so why would she encourage it now that she has passed?
That’s when I envisioned my Big Ma again. She wasn’t fussing over my shoulder, but laughing hysterically, because this was exactly what she’d wanted all along: for my family members to reconnect with one another, with her cookies in our minds. Every aunt, uncle, and cousin I called shared a different memory about Big Ma, affirming her legacy as the glue that held us together all these years.
Nowadays, I imagine Big Ma rooting hard for these peanut butter–sesame oil cookies. After all, they're almost exactly how we all remember hers to be—but with a couple tablespoons of me in there, too.
- 1/4 cup extra-creamy peanut butter (low-sodium)
- 4 tablespoons softened butter
- 1/4 cup granulated sugar
- 1/4 cup tightly packed light brown sugar
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 2 tablespoons toasted sesame oil
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 egg
- 1 cup white whole wheat flour
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
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