Everything tasted better when my grandma was around.
Growing up, we didn't get to see my dad's side of the family all that often, but I noticed at some point that all the food we ate in Grandma Kinsman's presence was exponentially more delicious. Later on, I came to realize that it wasn't due to some special grandmotherly mojo, but rather that she used real butter rather than margarine, and my family shopped accordingly when she was in town.
No matter the ingredients, I was predisposed to enjoy her cooking. I loved her and she loved me, her weird, short-haired, misfit granddaughter, even if the rest of the world wasn't inclined to. Seldom did I feel that love so strongly as when her yearly shipment of holiday cookies arrived.
These weren't just any old Snickerdoodles or oatmeal raisins (though I surely wouldn't have turned up my nose at anything she was kind enough to offer me). It was a parcel of wonder that would arrive by way of the U.S. Postal Service: one or two (sometimes two!) department store short boxes with the tops bowed out by the goodies nestled within.
This was a massive undertaking. Aided by my Aunt Myrna, my grandmother would craft hundreds, or sometimes thousands of unfailingly scrumptious sugar-dusted, nut-crusted, frosting-slathered, jam dotted cookies, each nestled into a small sleeve of wax paper. Unwrapping them (after we'd all squabbled and honed in on each family member's favorites) was a small, but momentous event - a visit, a hug, a memory to treasure.
And memories are all I have. Both Grandma and Aunt Myrna have passed on, and for a million small, silly, selfish and short-sighted reasons, I never made the time to get into the kitchen with them and learn at their experienced hands. Even if I had the recipes (which I do not, and other than Swedish Gems, I don't even know names with which to research), I'd be lacking the infinitesimal details: the precise piping of the jam into a sugar-dusted fold, the point at which to press the walnut half so it stays lodged in the bottom of the cookie, the consistency of the chocolate frosting so it enrobes but doesn't drip or crack.
Excellent baking is equal parts science, experience and love and I unwittingly cheated myself out of several of those key ingredients. Please, if you still have the chance, ensure a lifetime of sweet holiday memories for yourself and your family and get into the kitchen with your older loved ones NOW.
Do your grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins or parents have a box of hand-written recipes, yellowed newspaper clippings utterly essential to making the holiday cake you spend the rest of the year dreaming about? Pay a visit with camera in hand, or see if they'd mind parting with them for a short while while you archive for posterity.
Don't go hogging all that history just for yourself! While it's not quite the same as having the actual sauce-stained and flour-dusted card in hand, chances are, everyone in your family would be delighted by a custom-made cookbook. Make a printable PDF to share digitally, or publish a private family website or blog so you all can share your favorite kitchen memories.
If you've got a slightly bigger budget, consider a print-on-demand publishing service like Lulu or Cafepress or a recipe-specific site like Tastebook and loved ones to order a copy, or surprise them with a holiday gift that will last a lifetime.
Measurements? Shmeasurements. Many home recipes lose something in translation from hand to handwritten. Capture all those pinches, dashes and smidgens on video, in the cook's own words. You don't have to be all Martin Scorsese about it - just flip on your video camera or your cell phone and hit record. Ask questions along the way - "Who taught you to make this?" "Did my mom like to eat this?" "Was it always easy to get the ingredients?" - and you'll end up with a story that feeds more than just your stomach.
Is grandma camera-shy? See if she'll go for just a voice recording, and maybe some shots of her hands and the steps of the dish. You can get creative in the editing process later; what counts right now is that you're spending some time together.
Don't have access to a camera, or just don't dig the notion of sitting back and documenting? That's okay - just go ahead and get your hands dirty. There is no better way to truly learn a recipe than to get in there and make it yourself. Ask the cook for a coaching session so you can get a feel for the texture of a dough, when the yeast has risen just enough or exactly how the sauce ought to run off a spoon or taste at this point in the process. Then, when it's all done, sit down together and feast.
While your future renditions of the dish may or may not taste exactly like your loved one's, I guarantee you this: you will never, ever eat it alone.