My grandmother made the world’s best brownies.

She lived with my family from the time I was nine or so until I was in high school, and she handled much of the cooking and housekeeping for my teacher mother. Grandma’s cooking was plain, lowest-common-denominator Midwestern fare, but she loved her grandkids, and treats were high on her list of ways to show it. The most memorable were her popcorn balls – and the brownies.

To this day, I have no clue how she made the popcorn balls. They weren’t caramel, but did involve cooking sugar and water to one of the defined candy-making stages, although I don’t know which, coloring the resulting mixture either pink or blue, stirring popped corn into it, and forming softball-sized globes with buttered hands. I don’t even remember if there was flavoring – it would absolutely have been vanilla – or not. The popcorn balls were more akin to kettle corn than anything else in taste, but the sugar coating had a slightly coarse, gritty, crystallized texture against the crisp popcorn, and we didn’t get them often, since they were definitely labor-intensive.

On the other hand, I have spent years trying to recreate the brownies. Grandma, coming from a farm in rural Missouri and having lived through both World Wars and the Depression in between, tended to use basic ingredients, and not too many of them. Her brownies did not involve melting 60% criollo chocolate in a bain marie over simmering water, but only Hershey’s cocoa, and nuts that, although purchased at the supermarket, were the same varieties her family had grown on the farm back home. They were more on the fudgy side than the cake, but weren’t the least bit gooey, and had a crisp top that sometimes could be peeled off and nibbled separately.

Now don’t get me wrong: I love fancy, ‘gourmet’ brownies with exotic ingredients and flavors, and have even made my share. But among many other things I regret in my misspent life, high on the list is never having gotten the recipe for Grandma’s brownies. It only existed in her memory, and when she moved from our house to my aunt’s (her other daughter), and then died some years later, it was lost forever.

When my mother died, another batch of recipes went with her, too. She wasn’t an outstanding cook – at least by the standards of the early 21st century – but there were certain things that she had perfected, and prepared from experience and memory. Fortunately, since I lived with her or she with me for the last 16 years of her life, many of these dishes are now stored in my memory as well. But I’m not getting any younger. What happens to all those traditions, memories, and flavors when I can no longer cook?

So, here are my family’s recipes, in a more-or-less permanent format. My long-ago college anthropology professors touted culture as the means human beings use to collect and preserve experience across generations, and cultures which have writing (‘preserved language’, so to speak) as having an advantage in the game. This may not be great literature, but it is a way to record the good stuff I inherited from my forbearers, and some things that I’ve come up with myself, the modern equivalent of the ‘commonplace books’ medieval and renaissance ladies kept before printed cookbooks were invented.

And, since my niece’s favorite demand as a small girl was always ‘Story, Grandma!’, I’m including the background of each recipe. They’re not just food, you see, but part of our history, part of the family in a particularly close and intimate way. And those stories deserve to be preserved just as much as the food.

And while I’m at it, may I make a suggestion? I have had to resurrect recipes from community cookbooks to which family members contributed, notes in the ‘family bible’ (aka ‘Old Reliable’) cookbook out of which my mother and I have cooked since 1956, my memory, and by experimenting until I think I’ve got it right. Please don’t make yourself go through this process. Talk to your Mother, your Grandmother, your Aunt Agatha – and to your Dad, your Grandpa, and your Uncle Claude, for that matter. Write the recipes and the stories down, in your word processor, on little slips of paper, on the flyleaves of your family cookbooks, on your blog, but Write Them Down. And revel in remembering and recording your family history as you go.

Don’t let your grandmother’s best-in-the-world whatever-it-is (but it can’t be brownies…) get away.

—  Elizabeth McC.


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