The Family Recipe

It was never just a cookbook.

That was what Rosalie Pennington told her daughter, Martha, when she handed her the heavy book wrapped in plain brown paper, tied with rough twine. It was also a cookbook; and there were recipes for various meals organized from appetizers to desserts. But it was made by someone very special, someone who offered these gifts to the family long ago, though Rosalie was the first to bind each gift together in one thick hardcover book. She wrote her name carefully in the top left corner of the book: one inch down, one inch in. For such a precise woman, Martha thought each recipe would perfectly match the index. But every so often, in between the ingredients and instructions, she would find a different type of recipe calling for herbs not found in every person’s garden. The whisking gave way to grinding with a mortar and pestle and instead of a Crock-Pot she had to pull out her cauldron. Martha eventually spilled hollandaise sauce over a love spell, but by then she was Martha Carraway. She had no need for wooing anymore and did not see it as much of a loss compared with everything she had gained.

Martha could not fully remove the stain by the time she wrapped the book in old magazines and red ribbon and handed it down to her daughter, Beverley. Beverley learned to make Yorkshire puddings that cheered every roast dinner and poppets that guarded against every curse in the same evening. Years later, when she was making pancakes with her children, two pages were merged together for all eternity through the binding powers of maple syrup. Beverly never knew what spells were lost, but she did not miss them as much as she enjoyed being chased by her children who threatened her with maple-coated palms and plastered her with sticky handprints. And her son, Peter, did not ask what was missing on the day he tore off the festive Christmas wrapping paper. He was just pleased to have that pancake recipe again.

Peter did make a few of the charms that he found inserted in the midst of recipes for savory jellies. When one of his concoctions bubbled over, improvisation turning to a sour mess, the pages for the jellies were lost along with the charms. Peter regretted the loss of the charms much more than the loss of the jellies, but he penned in as many of the instructions as he could remember on the margins surrounding the introduction to tea sandwiches. He soon realized that the recipes for the tea-infused cocktails did not have alcoholic special ingredients. He learned the next summer, though, that the ingredients were just as flammable as alcohol. But he had been preparing enough picnics with his daughter, Evelyn, that she was able to list some of the lost recipes on the back of a page for crème brûlée. And she had improvised enough with her father to add a few new recipes of her own.

By the time Evelyn passed the book down to her son, Nathaniel, and he passed it down to his niece Millie, and she passed it down to her granddaughter Rosalie, there was little left of that original cookbook wrapped so carefully in brown paper by the original Rosalie besides her curvy signature inked on the inside of the front cover. The newest Rosalie added her name to the end of the list: following several other Rosalies, a few Peters, two or three Marthas, and the smudged pawprint of a cat lovingly named Pancake. The newest Rosalie also added in a few recipes of her own, ones that replaced the correct merging of candle wax with the correct mashup of mp3s. Her potions could be made just as easily in the microwave as in a cauldron. And her recipe for pie may have involved some guessing here and there around bright red cherry stains dripped by little fingers that left proper measurements up to the imagination.

The family learned to ignore what was lost in favor of what was found; a hundred new memories for every forgotten spell, a proud family lineage listed and remembered each time another generation opened the book. They learned to ignore the stickier pages and grosser stains as much as they all instinctively knew to ignore the signature that they could sometimes see scrawled above the first Rosalie’s name in a brighter red than any cherry stain. They ignored the mess in favor of the good, and followed the instructions as they made their own additions to the book; spells, and meals, and name after name after name, signed in the unique cursive of each new family member who committed to the history of their family, each person who focused on the positive instead of how much they could possibly lose.

Everyone knew that it was never just a cookbook. But after so many generations of ignoring, and forgetting, they forgot exactly what it was that they were signing.