Whenever my family hosted a get-together and potluck, I was always told to bring the paper plates or cups. Maybe the drinks. But under no circumstances was I ever allowed to actually cook anything for my family. I don’t know if it was because I was the last one to remain single and they assumed I didn’t know how to cook or if they took exception to my messy kitchen and assumed my food would kill them.
They were probably right on both counts.
Then I got married to a man whose mother is one of God’s greatest gifts to the culinary arts. This woman is incapable of making anything that tastes bad. When she cooks, something as simple as toast can bring on moans of ecstasy; even the forks taste good at her house.
When I married her son, she gave me a box of hand-written recipe cards with all of the family recipes. And by “family recipes,” I mean recipes from her mother, grandmother, sisters and aunts – people who create the same kind of magic in the kitchen. It took me a few years to realize what a treasure that little box was, but it eventually became one of my most valued possessions. In fact, during the divorce, my ex-husband and I argued more over custody of that box than custody of our children.
She gave me everything I needed to become a better cook. Not just the recipes, but a 24-hour helpline when I screwed up. Learning to cook with her family was like being admitted to a secret society. Giving me that little box was her way of saying “Welcome to the family.”
Nobody leaves her house hungry. Ever. Not under any circumstances. It would be a crime against nature to walk away from such divine fare with an empty belly. But in her family, food is about more than filling one’s belly. It’s a message. Cookies can say everything from “thank you for mowing my lawn” to “I want to remind you that I love you.” A German chocolate cake on my birthday says “I love you enough to remember that this is your favorite.” A big pan of chicken and dumplings says “I know you are hurting and I don’t know how to make it all better.” Even a simple crock pot full of pulled pork says “I want my family to get together so I can see you all!”
A handful of freshly-written recipe cards a few weeks ago meant “I still love you.”
I used her dessert recipes more than any others. Grandma Tice’s Sugar Cookies. Aunt Neva’s Peanut Butter Cookies. Quagmire Bars. Grandma Goodwin’s Applesauce Chocolate Chip Cookies.
Peanut Butter Oatmeal No-Bakes.
The No-Bakes became my specialty during the summer of 2011, when I was pretty well immobilized in a brace after breaking my neck in a car accident. I couldn’t do anything by myself, but the one thing I truly missed was being able to bake goodies for my family. I couldn’t bend over the oven or lift the cookie sheets, so my family ended up eating store-bought cookies.
Which is simply not done around here, so I became the queen of the peanut-butter no-bakes. Batch after batch after batch. I made them for my family. I made them as thank-you gifts for the people who helped us after the accident. I made them at least once a week, sometimes more. And a strange thing happened.
People started requesting my no-bakes. I don’t know why. No-bake cookies are no-bake cookies. A simple recipe, easy to duplicate. And yet somehow, mine earn praise when I least expect it. And I don’t know why.
I haven’t tampered with my mother-in-law’s recipe. Good Lord, that would be like trying to edit “Huck Finn” or improve upon the Mona Lisa. No, one does not tweak perfection.
- When a local boy graduated from high school and went on a Mission trip with the church, he told everyone all he wanted was one batch of my cookies to take with him.
- When a friend sponsored a blood drive in honor of her late father, she asked if I would provide a batch of no-bakes for the event.
- When I asked a new friend if she needed anything for her daughter’s graduation party, she shot me a sideways look and muttered, “I’ve heard about your famous no-bake cookies. . . ?”
- When parents are asked to bring a dish to pass at different events, I am rarely given a chance to choose what to bring. It’s a given that I will bring my no-bakes.
It took a lot of years and a lot of baking, but I am finally starting to understand my in-laws’ trick of speaking with food. When I make a batch of my no-bakes, I am saying “Thank you for thinking I’m a good cook” or “I’m so flattered that you like these!” I’m saying “I’m thrilled to be a part of your special event.” I’m saying “You are special to me, and I want to do something special for you.”
When people ask for my cookies, they sometimes act as though they are worried about imposing on me. They offer to buy the ingredients or pay for the cookies, but they don’t realize that they are speaking to me in the language of food as well. Every request for my cookies is someone saying “I care about you and want to make you part of this event” or “I value our friendship and feel safe asking you for this.” And as petty as it may seem, I also hear “You don’t have to bring the cups and plates any more. I trust your cooking. You’re as good as the rest of us.”
And now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a T-ball awards party this afternoon, and I have cookies to make.
Goodwin Family Peaut Butter Oatmeal No-Bakes
- 1/2 butter (1 stick)
- 1/2 Cup milk
- 2 Cups sugar
- 3 Cups oatmeal
- 1 Cup peanut butter
- 1 tsp vanilla
Heat butter, milk and sugar over medium heat until it reaches a full rolling boil. Let it boil for 90 seconds. Less time leaves them gooey, more will make them crumbly.
Remove from heat. Stir in oatmeal until thoroughly mixed. Add peanut butter and vanilla. Mix well, and drop spoonfulls on waxed paper.
Here are my “tricks” when it comes to these cookies: Always use cheap peanut butter (I don’t know why, but that’s what MIL says, and I always obey). Use butter, not margarine. Last but not least, if you make a double batch, use the whole 18 oz jar. Trust me on this one.