Learning to cook cornbread dressing from memory taught me the importance of writing down every treasured recipe.
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"Get out the hospital pan," I instructed my uncle. He looked at me aghast. "The hospital pan?" he asked with a hint of distress.

"Yes, the hospital pan," I confirmed.

I wasn't sure how much onion or celery to chop, and I wasn't sure how much sage and salt to add to the cornbread dressing I was about to make, but I remembered this: my grandfather made the cornbread dressing in the hospital pan.

It was the first Thanksgiving without my grandfather. Of course we missed him tremendously; he left us unexpectedly just two months before. But it was also difficult because he was the keeper of the Thanksgiving recipes. He knew the secrets, the formulas, the little tricks that turned cornbread dressing into our cornbread dressing.

Sensing that his time as the family cook, if not his time with us, was growing short, Papaw had begun jotting down recipes. He also made me and my uncle cook with him during previous holidays so we could stand by his elbow and watch, learn, and absorb.

But when you don't know your time together is coming to a close, the opportunity to learn eventually seems interminable. I would promise him I was paying attention, while I was secretly nibbling bits of cornbread or wandering off to watch the Thanksgiving parade on TV.

And then, there we were — without proper recipes, without direction, and without Papaw.

When it was my time to step up, to officially be the Thanksgiving cook, I didn't have the one thing that I as a cook always lean on, the recipes with step-by-step instructions that are both my security and my guide.

I had watched him enough to know that Papaw cooked his cornbread dressing by sight. That is, he kept adding chicken stock to the mixture of cornbread, leftover biscuits, and silky onions and celery until it reached a "wet paste" consistency. What is "wet paste" consistency, you may ask. Honestly, I couldn't tell you. I'd have to show you. Just as he showed me. In the hospital pan.

I should clarify here that our family's hospital pan is another family's dishpan. If you're picturing a pan you use to relieve yourself while in a hospital bed, you can be forgiven. Most people do think that. But this dishpan came from the hospital, so in our family it's the hospital pan.

Now, we have a multitude of bowls of all sizes. Plenty are big enough to hold the cornbread dressing as it's being stirred. So why the hospital pan? Why do I insist on cooking the dressing in a decades-old piece of plastic that has far outlived its original purpose?

Because that's what Papaw did.

And why did he do it? I never asked, but he stirred the dressing in a hospital pan with a potato masher that once belonged to his mother, my great-grandmother. So while I didn't have the full measure of ingredients, and I didn't quite know how long I was supposed to cook anything, I had the two tools that had guided him through decades of making dressing, and that seemed like as good a start as any.

hospital pan dressing
Credit: Kimberly Holland

Make Recipes Collectibles

This year stands out for many reasons. It is certainly something those of us who've lived through it will be unlikely to forget, on any level, for a very long time to come. But for another reason, 2020 has been helpful: it's been a good year for recipes.

Because many of us are staying apart to keep one another healthy during the holidays, families are finally swapping the recipes they've kept siloed for decades. For example, my mom cooks the same broccoli casserole for holidays with my dad's family. No one else makes it. No one else dares to try. But because we're not gathering this year, my aunts and cousins have called and texted, asking for the recipe. They now have a written copy for their records and for their families because even if we aren't together, their holidays call for my mother's broccoli casserole.

Unfortunately, family recipes often disappear with the cooks. Sometimes by accident, sometimes because younger cooks turn to online recipe sites or collection boards like Pinterest, treasured recipes fade as cooks turn over the reins to their children and grandchildren. But this year, the calls to family members and friends for familiar recipes will hopefully help the lasting legacy that is shared food memories last a bit longer.

It's been two years since Papaw left us, and we just prepared our third Thanksgiving without him. Each year, we lament that our recipes are incomplete, our memories fuzzy, our final dishes "not quite right." I'm left looking at a saucepan of simmering onions and celery and offering recipe instruction by way of, "I think it was more than half full when he did it, so add more."

And each year, I repeat to myself this promise: I will write down every recipe. I hope you'll take up this challenge this year, too.

Offer to Help Write the Record

Family recipes are more than ways to feed people at gatherings. They're stories. They're memories. They're a connection to the cooks that came before us, and the ones that will come after.

Indeed, as much as cooking has changed over the years, with the introductions of smart appliances and access to ingredients our grandparents never had, cooking remains a fully immersive experience. You give of your time, your energy, and often your money to create something for others to enjoy.

But even if you aren't the cook in your family, you'll benefit from having those recipes. One day, you may crave the specific feeling you had with every bite of your grandmother's butter cookies, your grandfather's roasted turkey, your brother's baked macaroni. If you don't have the recipe, you cannot recreate that memory.

The next time you're with family for a meal, make it a point to gather the recipes. While you're helping cook, or after you've cleared and cleaned the table from a family dinner, ask your loved one or friend for the recipe. But instead of promising to get it by email or write it down the next time you're over, be prepared with recipe cards and ink pens.

Wild Berries Recipe Cards
Credit: FavoriteStory/Etsy

Wild Berries Recipe Cards

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minimalist recipe card
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Watercolor Recipe Cards
Credit: WatercolorPaperie/Etsy

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If you have the recipe cards on your person when you're visiting or FaceTiming, you have few excuses not to get that all-important family recipe for potato casserole.

With the recipes in hand, go ahead and make them. You may find that the recipe as it's written isn't quite right. Or you may have questions. If you do, go ask your aunt or uncle, mom or dad, the family's master cooks, for any of their helpful hints or secret tips.

This way, you won't be left wondering how the recipes you love so much are made.