The Recipe Keeper

Southern Living (USA) - - Southern Living - BY L ATRIA GRA­HAM

My mother was a medi­ocre cook when my par­ents got mar­ried, and the first time she served my fa­ther toma­toes, he al­most asked for a divorce. Daddy grew up on a tomato farm in South Carolina and couldn’t stand to eat them. But ev­ery­thing changed when he tasted Mama’s lasagna. The recipe came cour­tesy of Lou Harper from Ed­mon­ton, Ken­tucky— some­one my par­ents had never met who lived hun­dreds of miles away. It ran on page 119 of the South­ern Liv­ing 1982 An­nual Recipes cook­book, which was a wed­ding gift from my Aunt Ann. The fu­sion of gar­lic and fat took the sting out of the toma­toes, and the lay­ers of pasta and cheese smoth­ered any re­sent­ment he had to­ward the in­gre­di­ent. The fla­vor pro­file was un­fa­mil­iar, but the three types of cheese made it com­fort­ing, and he re­quested the dish ev­ery Christ­mas.

When we were old enough, my brother and I put in re­quests for lasagna, too, and soon one pan wasn’t enough to feed the four of us. When we got a crav­ing, we made our own lasag­nas, but they never tasted like Mama’s.

My fa­ther was a farmer like his fa­ther. My younger brother, Ni­cholas, and I spent much of our free time on fam­ily land at the foot of the Ap­palachi­ans, tend­ing to okra or car­ing for hogs. Mama worked as a postal car­rier, but the rest of us could of­ten be found on the farm or at the pro­duce stand in Spar­tan­burg, South Carolina, haul­ing col­lards, shelling beans, and crack­ing pe­cans so folks could make their sig­na­ture pies. We were the ones who made Christ­mas din­ner hap­pen, so we al­ways worked un­til the eleventh hour on Christ­mas Eve. We sold fresh sage when most places only stocked dry, and we canned our own chow­chow so we could tell cus­tomers ex­actly what was in it. Duke’s mayo was a sta­ple at the store, just

in case some­one’s ab­sent-minded hus­band brought home some­thing else. My mom was par­tic­u­lar about her in­gre­di­ents too. One Christ­mas Eve, I picked up ri­cotta in­stead of her re­quested cot­tage cheese. My protests about how they worked the same fell on deaf ears, so I trekked back to the mar­ket. Her mes­sage was clear: Don’t mess with the orig­i­nal.

The pro­ceeds from the stand helped us pay for col­lege. I moved to New Hamp­shire. Ni­cholas went to New York. My par­ents had one rule: No mat­ter where we trav­eled, our fam­ily had to be to­gether in Spar­tan­burg for Christ­mas. And that’s what we did.

Un­til the time we couldn’t—the year my dad died of can­cer. I shut down the pro­duce stand. Folks would have to get their in­gre­di­ent fix some­where else. The three of us stayed home, cur­tains drawn, our house dark. I sat in my child­hood bed­room with a book, un­able to read its con­tents. “Christ­mas just ain’t Christ­mas with­out the one you love…” the lyrics drifted down the hall­way and ar­rived just be­fore the heady mix of onion, gar­lic, and Ital­ian sea­son­ing that comes from only one dish. I dashed to the kitchen, where Mama stood in her pa­ja­mas with old-school R & B hol­i­day jams pour­ing out of her iPad. The Christ­mas lasagna is, by def­i­ni­tion, just a casse­role, but there’s no way to ac­count for the love baked into those lay­ers of pasta.

Af­ter Daddy died, that cook­book’s pages scat­tered across the kitchen floor ev­ery time she opened it. The spine was bro­ken in sev­eral places and had come unglued. The pages we turned to most were the color of caramel. A bit of but­tery dough from my fa­vorite Al­mond Spritz Cook­ies had stained the pages tan in spots. This book, along with some pho­tos, was all that was left of their mar­riage. I was de­ter­mined to re­place it.

Even though we have the recipe com­mit­ted to mem­ory, I fear it will age worse in my head than it did in the dilapidated cook­book. I get antsy about things that are not writ­ten down. Pho­to­copies get mis­placed. Hand­writ­ten cards suf­fer un­der wa­ter dam­age. I wanted some­thing more per­ma­nent.

I scoured used-book shops search­ing for copies of the orig­i­nal. I picked up one in Greenville, South Carolina, and an­other at a li­brary sale in Hoover, Alabama. The third came from a shop on Bax­ter Street in Athens, Ge­or­gia. Fi­nally, I had three—one for Mama, Ni­cholas, and me.

I waited for the right time to give Mama her copy—Christ­mas Eve. She un­wrapped it, gave me a hug, and put it right next to her old one. She has never opened it. She still uses her orig­i­nal cook­book, even though it crum­bles at her touch. I don’t blame her. Af­ter all, it’s the one with a life­time of Christ­mas mem­o­ries. (Get Lou Harper’s lasagna recipe at south­ern liv­ing.com/lasagna.)

THERE’S NO WAY TO AC­COUNT FOR THE LOVE BAKED INTO THOSE LAY­ERS OF PASTA.

Gra­ham (right) and her mama cel­e­brat­ing the 2013 hol­i­day sea­sonat Bilt­more House.

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