When I graduated from college, my sister handed me a gift during our family’s celebratory dinner that prompted me to sob into my chocolate cake. It was a spiral-bound book named Abby Won’t Starve: a Post-College Cookbook. In it, she had assembled family recipes from absolutely everyone — our mother, of course, who’d cooked Julia Child classics all through our childhoods; my sister’s new boyfriend (who would, the following year, become her husband); my godmother; she even culled recipes from our dead grandfather’s girlfriend.
Each section started off with a dedication, but my father’s note took the cake. Under “Main Courses (Meat),” he wrote, “Abby — Don’t even think about ever being a vegetarian. I love you. Dad.” (I was graduating from Oberlin College, a hippie, liberal school in Ohio.)
This was long before the age of Shutterfly or Pinhole Press, so my sister put together the whole thing by hand, with paper, scissors, and glue. If people submitted recipes late, those ones appeared in an entirely different font.
This was, without a doubt, the best gift I’d ever received, and remained so until, many years later, my husband painstakingly wrote out the 100-something emails from our cross-Atlantic courtship in a leather-bound book by hand.
But once the cookbook was in my possession, it disappeared into a low shelf in the kitchen.
It was the year 2000, I was 22, living in Brooklyn, and, like so many New Yorkers, afraid to turn on my oven. I made nothing but burritos, which involved little more than chopping and assembling. The only time I really used the book was to turn to the pages of most interest — those that had been filled out by my uncles and aunt, the real New Yorkers, under the heading “New York Secrets.” These listed all the best places to buy supplements (!), get a café con leche, $2 soup, and falafel. It also included one vital tip: “the best public bathrooms: Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.”
I hauled the book from apartment to apartment — from Brooklyn to Boulder to Harlem and back to Brooklyn — but I rarely used it until, over a decade later, I moved to Vienna, Austria, with my new husband and soon after, had a baby.
As a new mom far from home, it became the most used item I owned. It had waited patiently for me for 13 years and now it was having its moment. Who knew that a day would come in which the person who refused to turn on her oven had to feed herself and others again and again? I couldn’t read German cookbooks (or German anything else, really), and while I did go down food blog rabbit holes, I craved the familiar, not the new. Everything, everything else, was so new.
The Book, as I affectionately started calling it, became my connection to my own family, but also to the very idea of family. Here they were, bound into a book, the meals that had made me — and could now make us.
The toddler and I baked our way through my mother’s banana bread with browning bananas I mashed up and froze (a tip I learned from an Irish friend in Austria). I braved Chicken Marbella, which my sister had taught me to make, and invited new friends over to try it. On chilly nights, I made what my husband coined “Mama Rasminsky Spaghetti,” my mom’s quick go-to meat/tomato/mushroom sauce, and by the end of it, we were all sated, the toddler’s face smeared in red.
The most popular item inside the tattered cover, however, was “Lolly’s Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookies,” a recipe my aunt had passed along to my mother sometime in the 1990s. Aunt Lolly claimed its origins lay in Neiman Marcus, although she couldn’t be sure. The story she told went something like this: A woman (who knows who or when!) had ordered these at a Neiman Marcus café, fallen in love with them, asked for the recipe, and was told it would cost her “two fifty.” Like any normal person, she assumed this meant $2.50 but — she found out when she got the check — it meant $250. She was apparently so angry that she decided to share the recipe widely, and for free. (Meanwhile, look online for this story and the cookies you’ll find are definitely not these cookies.)
In any event, provenance known or unknown, they were a staple in our house growing up — so thin and crisp as to be almost lattice-like — but every time I made them in Vienna, they looked entirely different: fat, chewy, puffed up. Still good, but not even remotely similar to my mother’s version. They also tasted slightly different. I had no idea what I was doing wrong. Were Austrian-sourced ingredients that different? My mom-friends on the playground begged me for the recipe, which I happily shared, but with one caveat: They’re not supposed to taste like this!
Over the years, I let The Book get stained with oil and vinegar and red wine, and made notes in the margins: “In Wien, cook for only 45 to 50 min”; “backpulver” for when I couldn’t remember the difference between baking soda and baking powder. (It turns out that baking soda was impossible to buy in Austria, which was part of the reason why the cookies tasted different.) The recipes rooted me back to where I had come — but they also allowed me to grow my own family, to feed us into our own future. The Book gave me the framework, the tools, the ingredients, the instructions: This is how you shower your daughter and husband and friends with the love you once received every night from your own mother.
As a new mom far from home — and now, cooking for my own small family through sheltering at home — using the book felt like a nod of thanks to my mother, to my father, to my sister, to everyone who thought: She really needs to know how to make this strawberry pie, or this particular chilled cucumber soup, or Lolly’s cookies, which my sister recently realized she had transcribed with one mistake: entirely too much flour. This is what accounted for the vast and mysterious difference in taste.
So, here they are. Make these for yourself and for those you love. And make them your own.
Oatmeal chocolate chip cookies
(Ty Mecham/Courtesy Food52)
This story was originally published on Food52.com: The Handmade Cookbook That Taught Me How to Grow a Family