I got to watch my grandmother make goulash. I helped even. I’m hoping that when I get home I can recreate it. There is something kind of magical, mystical about sitting around the table at my grandmother’s house eating goulash. She makes it every time my mother visits. It is one of those recipes that is not written down. It never uses exact measurements. The ingredients are more or less the same. But it always has that distinctive grandma flavor. My aunt Jeannie said her goulash never tastes the same. There are no guarantees mine will either.
What is it that makes something a signature dish? Something that never tastes quite right unless a certain hand has made it? Is it in the stirring or the chopping? Is it in the way the ingredients are assembled?
I never thought in all my life that I would ever have a signature dish. But somehow it happened. I only know this is true because my husband’s mother (a crazy amazing cook) referred to it as mine. It was after I brought a couple of String Pie’s to Hospice. All of Tim’s family were there, waiting and watching, as his grandmother quietly took her time dying. Everyone was tired. Everyone was hungry. But no one wanted to leave because they feared they would miss the moment of her passing. It’s hard keeping vigil with small children, so I was at home. And I was going to cook anyway. I simply doubled the recipe. Off we went to Hospice; children, casseroles, paper plates, and Kool-aid in tow.
I believe food heals, particularly when it is shared around a table with conversation and laughter thrown in. It did that night. During a difficult time the family gathered round. For a time the sweetness of kindred souls filled the Hospice dining room as string pie filled hungry bellies, and creature comfort filled grieving hearts. You would have guessed we were at a happy family reunion, not watching and waiting for death to visit. It touched me deeply when Nanny, Tim’s mom, told me how good it was, how helpful.
As we leave my grandmother’s I will remember the goulash. I will remember the crazy stories shared around plates heaping with it and my Aunt Carol’s guacamole. I am hoping that my soul has been nourished by the time I spent in my grandmother’s kitchen, getting dinner ready. I don’t know when I will get the chance to return. So I am asking God for the grace to remember: how she browned the ground beef on low, sprinkling in generous amounts of garlic powder; how she simmered crushed tomatoes, tomato sauce, and tomato juice; how she cooked the green pepper and onion in the leftover grease from the hamburger; how each part cooked separately, flavors developing while the elbow macaroni boiled; how finally it all got stirred into the same pot to mingle and marry, making a fine dish.
I wonder if my sons will someday return to my table with their children, talking about the meals that only I can make, begging me for a special encore of a dish they believe only I can do. As one who loves food, I tend to believe it doesn’t really matter who makes it. But there is something about cooking that develops over time, particular recipes prepared regularly, making it to special request status. For me it is the story of love and relationship, being told in the slurping silences and satisfied sighs of the dinner table, aiding and abetting the stories of family swapped and savored between bites. It is the pilgrimage of the familiar returning again and again for a taste of home. More than a recipe perfected, this is what I’m most hungry for.