The Joy of Cooking

Chère amie,

We have a lot in common, you and I.  A love of Wyclef, a weakness for Nordstrom’s shoe department, an ability to eat three breakfasts before lunch…the list goes on. But one way I think we’re especially alike? We both have utterly cool, totally kick-ass, we-want-to-be-like-you-someday moms.

One of my favorite memories of your mother is the first time I met her. You and I were studying abroad in Nantes, and our fall semester ran through January. You invited me to spend Christmas in Paris with your family. And I remember the day we arrived…your parents and Jake had gotten to the apartment before we did, and we walked in the door and your mom greeted me with the biggest hug, as if we’d known each other forever. In that single gesture, all of my wobbles about spending my first Christmas away from home evaporated, and I knew I was in for a memorable week. Your mom has a fantastic sense of humor, razor-sharp quick wit and incredible strength, and she remains one of my all-time favorite people.

Anyway, inspired by your post about going home, I wanted to share a story about my own mom from our trip to Montana last month. One of our last days at home, while I was pouring over cookbooks in my mom’s enviably vast collection, my aunt asked me if I’d ever seen the cookbook my mom made with her best college friend, Shelley.


Yes, long before marriage, kids, career…my mom had a foodie project of her own! Several hours and a trip to basement storage later, she unearthed THIS beauty, a leather-bound journal that once belonged to my grandfather. Inside was a treasure trove of recipes, some handwritten and others typed, the pages lovingly torn and stained in that fabulous way that only cookbooks can be.

little journal.JPG

I don’t know what’s better, the nostalgia over family recipes that I haven’t tasted in ages – Jeannie Lawler’s Chocolate Sauce deserves a post of its own one day – or the handwritten notes dotting the margins (“moist-moist-moist!” “for summer, do strawberry ice cream,” and my personal favorite, “good-but necessary for cookbook?”). Shelley’s art-y scrawl is pretty fabulous, too.

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I always knew my mom loved to cook, but there was something so special about having tangible proof, especially from a time long before she had kids of her own.

Although their book project never materialized, I think something even better came of it. My mom’s love of food, and the joy she found in cooking for others, is something that she instilled in me from the youngest age. It was also the catalyst for other lifelong lessons, like the importance of family dinner, good manners, and the need for a healthy breakfast.

It got me thinking about what our kids’ lives with food will be like. Will they collect recipes, entertain their friends, and make these recipes for their own children some day? What seeds are we planting now that might grow into something bigger?

So here’s a recipe for German Plum Cake, which until last week I hadn't had since my childhood. My mom used to make it with plums from a tree in our front yard. Thirty years later, its simple, sweet flavors are just as I remembered them. 

Our moms have given us countless gifts in life, but teaching us the joy of cooking may be one of the most profound.  Here’s to you, Nancy and Laurie. We’re doing our best to pass it on to the next generation.

(reprinted with permission from Nancy and Shelley’s Unfinished Cookbook)

½ cup butter
¾ cup sugar
2 eggs
1 cup flour
10 plums (or 15-20 apricots)
1 teaspoon cinnamon

Put butter in bowl that has been rinsed in very hot water so butter will soften slightly. Add ½ cup sugar and 1 egg. Stir briskly until thoroughly mixed. Add second egg and beat until light. Add flour, mix well and spread in deep pie dish.

Wash plums, cut in half, pit, and arrange skin side down on batter. Sprinkle with ¼ cup sugar and cinnamon. Bake at 400 for 30 minutes.

Serves 6.

my plum cake.JPG