Catherine Toth Fox: How Family Recipes Keep Us Connected

Catherine Toth Fox: How Family Recipes Keep Us Connected

I am concerned about my mother’s death. All the time.

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Because when she’s gone, I can’t call her to ask how much Crisco she puts in her pie crust or how long she cooks the Okinawan sweet potato she puts in her manju.

This is a real fear for me.

My mother is 76 and forgets many things, but not her recipes. She rarely opens a cookbook or uses the recipes she wrote on oversized index cards. Everything is recorded in her head, her movements almost involuntary.

For some things — like flour and butter — measure them accurately; almost everything else is added to estimate. (I mean, she actually uses “eyeball” as a measurement term.)

And then there are the immeasurable things — how the bread dough feels in her hands, how the custard is in the pie shell — that she never writes down, things you’ll never understand until you’ve made these recipes too, dozens of times over five decades.

If you check out our text exchanges, the vast majority of them are about food — and most of the time I ask her questions, often in panic, about one of her recipes. Because even though I’ve written down all the ingredients and directions, there are always, always secret tricks that are rarely noticed.

To salt cucumber slices before adding the kimchi marinade, to keep the pancake batter lumpy, to add three drops of piping hot water to the cookie dough for reasons we still don’t understand.

The author makes manju with her mother and her childhood home. Catherine Toth Fox/Civil Beat

These are the little things that matter to the recipe — and what turns a simple chocolate cream pie into The Chocolate Cream Pie My Mom Makes.

We all grew up with foods specific to our family. It could be the pork adobo your grandma makes or the deer stew your uncle is famous for. Give those recipes to someone else and it just won’t taste the same.

I realize this also applies to me. My custard pie never turns out like my mom’s no matter how closely I follow the recipe, no matter how many times I call her to guide me every step of the way. (I blame my oven.)

Food is the great connector. Homemade pickled mango or a jar of fresh lilikoi butter can bridge all kinds of gaps. I’ve seen the grumpiest surfer soften at the gift of butter mochi and an entire office congregate over batches of homemade chili.

And families, in particular, benefit greatly by sharing meals. A 2020 study by the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior found that family meals not only increased fruit and vegetable consumption, but also enhanced family functioning — meaning family members felt more connected.

My family went to dinner together every night, without fail. And my mother, who had a full-time job and raised four children, somehow managed to put a complete meal on the table, including dessert. Often even the bread was homemade. To me she was a superhero, wielding a wooden spoon instead of a sword and wearing an apron instead of a cape.

Like many of us, my mom uses food the same way we hug people. It’s a greeting – Here, have a cinnamon bun. The comfort – Here, have a cinnamon bun. It shows unconditional love – Here, have a cinnamon bun.

Cooking recipes manju Catherine Toth FoxCooking recipes manju Catherine Toth Fox
My mom’s manju recipe tells you how much Crisco to use in the pie crust and how long to cook the Okinawan sweet potato. Catherine Toth Fox/Civil Beat

Now that I am a mother myself, I see how food connects me and my 5-year-old son. He gets excited when he smells pancakes cooking in the kitchen. He literally applauds when I make him fried noodles—my mom’s recipe—for school lunch. He knows that what I cook or bake for him is a gift, it’s that hug, it’s something he will always crave and contact me even when I’m gone.

Over the past year, I’ve made it a point to spend time with my mom, watch her masterfully create the dishes I grew up with, and frantically take notes.

Do not overwork the pie crust, use ice cubes to cool the water, burn the milk before adding it to the bread cubes, freeze your yeast. I worry that if I don’t know how to make these dishes anymore, I will lose my mother completely. And that scares me. I want to be able to eat a bowl of pot roast or bite into a lemon bar and taste the memory of her.

These family recipes are sacred to me, puzzle pieces from my past. As we go through them, my mom tells me stories about the people who gave her the recipes: a high school classmate, a co-worker, her grandfather from Kumamoto, a saleswoman at Longs.

It is a glimpse into her life, a world that children do not often know. I see my mother as a child picking coffee beans in Honaunau, dropping out of high school because she couldn’t find a parking space, ordering food from regulars at the restaurant my grandfather ran in a bowling alley.

Long retired, she still bakes in massive quantities, bringing perfectly packaged bowls of datenut bars or bread pudding to the doctor’s office staff, the only people besides her family she sees regularly these days. And when she gives them her homemade treats, their faces brighten up. “Mrs. Toth made dessert again!” they shout, and my mother, her smile hidden behind her mask, is beaming from her eyes.

She has to hug them.

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