Food Issue Extra Helpings: Reading Between the Lines

The weight of a family cookbook

The recipe for Applesauce Muffins
The recipe for Applesauce Muffins

She probably wasn't aware how much it meant to me. Or how it would become the only cookbook in my library not battered with slung olive oil and flour. Some recipes are not for cooking, even if Applesauce Muffins are what winter tastes like, even if I can still hear the ice cream maker chug.

Before my grandma died, she made three family cookbooks. Two went to my female cousins. The last went to me, although I'm not sure if that would have been her first choice. The recipes had always been made by women. There's not a single mention of a great-uncle, not even a nod to the manly grill. In my family, the hamburger patties were always mixed and formed by the wives. The men were just keeping watch of an open fire.

But my mother had three boys. The legacy had to go somewhere. My older brother had his throwing stars and butterfly knives and my younger had his bendable wrestling figurines. When I was his age, I tied tangles of fabric scraps around Princess Leia and the occasional stormtrooper. Most of that was done in private, but I'm sure she must have glanced at Leia in her toilet paper crinolines. I'm sure everyone noticed that I always threw away the tiny plastic guns.

The cookbook isn't much, just a three-ring binder purchased at Wal-Mart or the dollar store. Most of the pages are written in my grandma's shaky hand. The recipes seem to all be from memory; some are no more than sketches. They assume the cook has been taught certain basics, that the Luscious Potatoes would stick unless the baking dish was buttered or that popcorn balls wouldn't stick unless the syrup was thickened. There's little in the way of serving sizes. The Sunflower Seed Cookies serve "a bunch," Hummingbird Cake serves a "Christmas bunch."

It's more of a secret history than a guide book. When my dad and grandpa asked for granny's famous Monkey Bread, they must have always judged it as a tiny miracle. They never had the honor of seeing how it was made. The book is filled with tips on how to pull off that domestic magic. Monkey Bread should never be sliced, one should "let 'eaters' pull off a hunk." Leftover pie dough can be rolled out "to make a little cinnamon-sugar snack." They were hints passed on from mother to daughter, but here granny was passing them on to me.

That's why the book is so special. I never came out to my grandma. She didn't meet any of my boyfriends or live long enough to read the occasional LGBT rants on my Facebook wall. The only time the subject came up was after a fight with my older brother, a violent argument about biblical interpretation that ended with him having a bloody lip and me having a deeper wound. Granny said I was wrong. Being gay was a sin.

But that was when I was barely in high school – long before she spent countless hours carefully writing instructions to whisk and sauté. By then I had come out to my parents, had my first real relationship, stopped faking interest in women to prove I was a man. Like many young gay men, I had adopted some degree of flamboyance. I'm sure at some point, I encouraged her with a "you go girl" snap.

By the time the cookbook came, she had stopped asking if I had a girlfriend. I had lost all the drive I had to pretend. I had become socially aware, and certainly didn't shy from expressing my opinions on gay rights, even if I never applied them to myself. Granny was not grand marshaling Pride parades or running PFLAG meeting out of her home, but she did give me the cookbook, the collective zest of four generations of women. Maybe the only way she had to understand my sexuality was to welcome me as one of her own.

I would bristle now at that comparison between women and gay men. Or the suggestion that gender has anything to do with how one should behave. But granny only knew the strict roles of small town, churchgoing Texas. Through much of my life, I carried resentment like a set of encyclopedias. Every slight was recorded, every unkindness was cross-referenced to word and misdeed. The cookbook allowed me to begin to forgive. Its labor had a love she never knew how to express. Still, the recipe for my favorite Applesauce Muffins was marked with a star. It was her way of letting me know the recipes were just for me.

Read more Extra Helpings stories at The Austin Chronicle’s First Plates Awards & Food Issue hit stands Thursday, February 13.

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