A photograph of Tien’s grandmother from the 1940s
I am eight years old, wearing a white ruffled dress that once belonged to an older cousin, standing before a crowd of 1,000 strangers, when the priest turns to offer me the “body of Christ.” I am ecstatic. I am drowsy. I have been given very strong cough medicine to combat an ill-timed bought of bronchitis, and as such, I am experiencing this reverent right-of-passage through fevered eyes, the edges of my vision blurring with white light. That’s all I remember of the day I received my First Communion—one of the seven Catholic sacraments that supposedly make it a little easier to get into heaven.
Though I no longer identify as Catholic, my eight-year-old self highly anticipated receiving Holy Communion for the first time, and studied diligently for the occasion. In the catechism, Holy Communion was described as a meal that enabled an “intimate union with Christ Jesus,” citing the Lord Himself: “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me and I in him.” What could be more intimate than eating flesh, drinking blood? It is one of the most controversial pillars of the Catholic faith—can these activities not accurately be described as cannibalism? Indeed, most other sects of Christianity have opted for less literal translations of Jesus’s words. Catholicism is the only Christian religion that maintains the tradition, upholding the belief that ordained priests are blessed with the power to transform wine and unleavened bread into the actual flesh and blood of Jesus Christ. This transformation turns what would be just a regular meal into a sacrament, the Eucharist, a Greek word with a surprisingly simple meaning: “thanksgiving.”
As a child preparing for my First Communion, the idea of tasting human flesh had certainly piqued my curiosity, though my parents had warned me that the bread would still taste like bread, and the wine like wine. Other things that had put me in a state about this occasion: getting to drink wine (a beverage for adults), getting to drink wine with my older cousins (kind of like being allowed into a secret club), getting to wear a frilly dress, and getting to eat with dead people.
Let me explain about that last bit. My parents and teachers had informed me that I would not be alone on the altar on the occasion of my First Communion, but that, in fact, I would be surrounded by the communion of saints, which doesn’t just mean saints like Joan of Arc, but all Christians everywhere, dead or alive (it is so like Catholics to command everyone over for dinner, even if everyone doesn’t necessarily want to attend). As a kid with a fairly intense imagination, I imagined a sort of scenario in which my dead grandmother would be coming to dinner. She had died when I was only three, so naturally I had a profound interest in knowing everything about her. I didn’t think I would actually see her, but perhaps she would let me know she was nearby?
I had worked myself into such a state about these multiple uncertainties that, in what would not be the first or last time in my life, I made myself sick just in time for the big event. I was too hopped up on cold medication to be attuned to any signals from the spirit world. The occasion was somewhat disappointing and I have very little memory of it.
Something that has been happening to me lately is that I will start writing about a subject I believe to be entirely unrelated to my Catholic upbringing, only to realize that said subject actually has everything to do with my Catholic upbringing. Though I have done a lot in my life to bury this aspect of my personal history, I am starting to accept that it might actually inform a lot of who I am today, whether I want it to or not. This is the case, I have recently realized, with my attitude towards cooking and eating. I have recently started a food blog dedicated to the purpose of communing with a (different) dead grandmother. It’s called You Can Eat Now, a phrase often uttered by one of my cousins after our family got through a litany of pre-dinner graces.
When I started the blog (with my cousin Kelsey—it was her idea in fact!), I didn’t have a so-called “eating philosophy.” I had written about the connection between food and memory before and had read (some) of Proust, but I didn’t realize how profoundly I already thought of cooking as a sort of communion with others who were absent. Following a recipe scrawled on the back of a post-it or printed elegantly in a book with high-definition photographs has always been, for me, a sharing of experiences: scent, taste, touch, smell, but also frustration, elation, confusion, the feelings of being in the kitchen. Whatever it is, there is some thread that connects us to the recipe’s author. Perhaps this is part of the reason celebrity cookbooks sell so well—most recipes are not so much about the ingredients as they are about the person making them.
I didn’t realize that I thought of recipes this way until the blog began. My cousin’s idea was this: our grandmother, who had been the head of large family meals for the entire length of our childhood, had recently died and left behind a substantial collection of recipes. Perhaps we could try making some of them, photograph them, and write about what they remind us of on the Internet. Perhaps some people who were as nostalgic as us would be interested.
The recipe collection, scanned and stowed safely in a Dropbox folder on my computer, contains many 1950s standards, like meatloaf, Two-Toned Aspic, Hot Chicken Salad Casserole, and a lot of squares and muffins and cakes cut from the pages of Chatelaine and Canadian Living, a couple Canadian-specific classics like Eatmore Bars and Butter Tarts, tons of cookies, prairie specials, like Saskatoon berry pie, and then instructions for no-fail pie crusts and the like, which would do very well on Pinterest today. Though I have fond memories of her Ginger Snap Cookies and Cherry Pie Coffee Cake, it is not a collection I scroll through with thoughts of what to actually make for dinner. It is a collection I scroll through to feel closer to my grandmother, to discover things about her I never thought to ask when she was alive. Why these recipes and not others? Did you like cooking? Were you happy with the life you chose?
Tien’s grandmother’s recipe for “No Weep Meringue”
In his essay “Unpacking My Library,” Walter Benjamin writes about the act of collecting and how collectors “disappear” inside their collections. Though he is writing about books, the same principle applies, I think, to recipes. “For a collector … ownership is the most intimate relationship that one can have to objects. Not that they come alive in him; it is he who lives in them … only in extinction is the collector comprehended,” says Benjamin. As an “heir” to a collection of recipes, I’m sure Benjamin would agree that there are traces of my grandmother, the original collector, to be discovered and comprehended within its confines. The collector always, in some sense, imagines the legacy left behind by its collection: was our grandmother thinking of us, specifically? The future Christmas and Easter dinners we would consume without her?
So far, despite my best Benjaminian efforts, reading and sorting through my grandmother’s recipe collection has offered up few facts as to her personhood that I didn’t already suspect. She was a practical woman; most of the recipes use simple ingredients that can be found in any regular supermarket. She was a woman who was short on time; most recipes don’t take longer than an hour to make and often include time-saving instructions. She was a woman who stayed close to home; most of the recipes don’t include much spice, until the 2000s, when she discovered Chai Tea and a recipe for broccoli salad that includes curry powder. She was a woman who had a lot of people to feed; most recipes are optimized for “big batches.” She was a woman who liked gardening; many recipes involving fresh rhubarb, carrots, apples, or Saskatoon berries seem to me to “pop” a little more than others. She was a woman who liked to be prepared; most recipes involve instructions for freezing. She was a woman who didn’t care much about calories; most recipes include some form of lard, butter, and/or Crisco, and heaps of sugar.
But perhaps I am going about this all wrong, sorting through my grandmother’s collection of recipes while checking off items on another list marked personality traits. If my grandmother is living in her recipe collection, I feel her most alive, most near when I am actually in the kitchen following the recipes. Though she is absent, we are sharing an experience, and it is no great stretch of my imagination to imagine that we are cooking together. What I experience most fully in this state of “communion,” so to speak, is her generosity. Ingredients, cook times, and oven temperatures fall away to reveal the act of love behind each creation. I recall the satisfaction that would appear on her face when my cousins and I dove into the cookie jar or asked for more carrots and dip.
Contemplating the nature of testing, Avital Ronell writes that there is no way to calculate a literary work’s trajectory or reception once it is released into the world: “In some cases there is nothing even to guarantee that the work will arrive. Some works seem to set an ETA—there is a sense that it will take them years to make their arrangements, overcome the obstacles of an unprotected journey … ” Ronell herself is playing with Benjamin’s idea of the “secret rendezvous” that a work sets out for itself in the form, usually, of a future reader who assumes the responsibility of being addressed. Yet neither the reader nor the author really has any sense of the work’s path through time and space, that which helped it “arrive.”
Most of the memories I have of my family involve some sort of meal, eaten around a table. As many others can relate, I’m sure, a big meal was the most frequent excuse for cousins, aunts, and uncles to meet, share, and bond. Last Christmas, our second without her, Kelsey made our grandmother’s Molasses Brown Bread. This bread, for me, inspires the strongest emotions regarding our grandmother. Kelsey confessed that, though she had followed the recipe exactly, the loaf had not turned out perfectly. It didn’t matter. As we passed the bread around the table that night, the taste of bitter molasses between our teeth, it felt less evident that there was one empty seat. Is this perhaps the “secret rendezvous” my grandmother had in mind when she scrawled the recipe for Molasses Brown Bread on a post-it? Even if she had not imagined this moment exactly, it certainly felt like the recipe had “arrived.” Is she not, in some way, still living in this bread?
Tien’s family at the breakfast table
Our blog has now expanded its repertoire. We still make our grandmother’s recipes, but we are also starting to make our own recipes and to take inspiration from elsewhere—other blogs, books, and the various cities we have inhabited. I still imagine cooking as an act of transformation, however, that brings us closer to, if not always my grandmother, others who are absent. If I make a gluten-free recipe, for instance, I am thinking of my mother. A vegan chana-masala from the blog The First Mess invites the blogger/chef Laura Wright to my dinner table, though we have never met in reality, and probably never will. What secret rendezvous will occur when I put my own recipes out into the world? Will I be invited into the kitchens and dining rooms of strangers? Will they share a piece of my life, my kitchen, in 20 years? Will they partake of my bread? And will part of me then live in them?
Shannon Tien is a writer living in Vancouver. Her essays and criticism have appeared in Hazlitt, The Globe and Mail, The National Post, and Maisonneuve. You can also find her writing about food and memories at You Can Eat Now.