Jars and Plenty

Jars and Plenty

by Pat Lipperini

Our hayride took us to the zucchini field and, of course, we picked the biggest ones we could find because that’s what you do when your helper is your three-year-old granddaughter. But hours later that zucchini lay stacked on my kitchen counter in a quiet challenge. And in that challenge, I returned to another time of bounty with an abundance of vegetables, yes.  But also, a richness of life and love and comfort. 

It has always been one of those fun family memories—the time we picked so much zucchini from the big garden at my aunt’s farm that there was nowhere to turn but to make ratatouille. And so my mother and aunt went to work and hours later the house overflowed with all sizes of jars, cans, and bowls full to the brim with this stewed treat. And then I watched them laugh amidst the chaos and absurdity of it all. And somehow, I knew that this day was a good day, even though no one really knew what to do with hundreds of containers of ratatouille.

So, as I begin to chop and sauté my zucchini, I battle that inextinguishable instinct to call my mother and laugh along with her in this memory. But she passed away last December, and I can’t make those calls anymore. I can’t ask her how to make ratatouille and I won’t ever hear her excited voice describing the broccoli soufflé she tried to make after first tasting it at Peg Hafner’s house. 

I still have her handwritten recipes in my books, the must-make new favorite that everyone should try. I make her cheesy potatoes, her garlic butter chicken, her chocolate sheet cake. For that matter, I still make my aunt’s crumbcake and her no-flour icing, my mother-in-law’s gnocchi and her ricotta cookies. All those great women. All those memorable meals. All that love and effort surrounding and enhancing their kitchen tables. Their classics have become part of my repertoire. And though I have tweaked and adjusted amounts and directives through the years, I operate within the contours of the original. It is still their food that feeds my family. And with each creation I announce: This is Noni’s Easter Bread. This is Grammy’s cucumber salad. This is Peeto’s (my aunt’s) banana cake. Why do I preface it so?

As I stir my softening zucchini and remember that long ago day of ridiculous plenty, I realize that using their recipes has never been just about making the food. I can hear their laughter through the steam of the vegetables and know that we use our family recipes because we want these people in the room with us once again. Not to help us with our cooking but to help us with our living.

I remember that ratatouille day for all the jars. But what tugs at my memory even more is the camaraderie, the joy, the effort, the sense of purpose, the need to create and not waste. And this was not confined to that day in the kitchen. It was who these women were. It was how they approached life. We long to hear our mothers’ voices to touch that essence, to absorb the ingredients and directions that produced such flavorful lives and to return to a time when goodness and strength enclosed us. But we can’t. So we cook their food. We stir and urge and pull out of that cake, that ratatouille, our own moments of safe mooring and suggestions of a benign world. Our mothers and aunts and fathers and grandfathers gave us that, not merely through their cooking, but through the honest living of their lives. Perhaps it is really that recipe which we try to replicate, and in the trying, we are loyal to their living.

As I place my aunt’s lebkuchen cookies,  my mother-in-law’s potato pancakes, or my mother’s chocolate-peanut candy on the table, I am making a statement. Not just that their food is delicious. But that their lives were worthwhile, valuable, necessary for the world. I use their recipes as witness, as recognition. I use their recipes in faithfulness to them and maybe to strengthen a promise I made to live with the same integrity and whole-hearted love. That is the recipe I long to perfect because it is what will truly nourish my family. 


Featured in our September 2022 issue, "Loyalty"