by Eric Ginsburg
I overlooked the butter, but she forgot to mention the milk.
For a more experienced cook, it might be obvious that a little bit of milk and butter would enhance a cheesy pasta dish, but that’s not a name anyone has ever — even accidentally — applied to me. My repertoire in the kitchen has long consisted of the simplest dishes to execute. In college I adapted basic recipes, leaving out milk when a box of Annie’s mac & cheese called for it to avoid an additional purchase.
The habit stuck. I wanted shortcuts in cooking, frozen or ready-to-eat meals if possible, and while I gravitated strongly towards adventure and experimentation when dining out, I shied away from recipes with too many ingredients, steps or time requirements. I generally subscribed to a utilitarian approach, figuring that there’s no reason to try and make arepas at home (as a college girlfriend roped me into attempting) when I can go buy some from a pro that will taste so much better.
That’s a bad example in the Triad, because I’ve yet to find any worthwhile arepas in a restaurant here, but you see where I’m going with this.
And yet there are a few dishes where making it myself is the only option: Meals that recall my childhood, things that may emerge in some form from a commercial kitchen nearby but that do not conjure the exact emotions tied to the way my mama did it.
My mom is a great cook, I should mention, and used to run her own catering business. But whenever I’m flying back to Massachusetts to visit and she asks what I want to eat, the food on my shortlist is primarily driven by nostalgia and tradition rather than taste.
Corn pudding is at the top of the list, what sounds like a reasonably simple dish but one that’s quite easy to mess up and make too runny. Around the holidays I’ll request her peppermint bark, and though I ask for it less frequently, I swear by her matzah-ball soup. Cookie pizza — served with whipped cream and fresh fruit — is a delicacy in my family, something we found in a cookbook for kids when my sister and I were little that is now a standby for most occasions.
The only recipe of hers that I’ve truly mastered is an Asian peanut-noodle dish, made with fresh ginger root, lemon juice, soy sauce, red-pepper flakes, peas and of course, gobs of peanut butter. It’s a meal that I’ve prepared enough times, tweaking the proportions of the ingredients called for, that I actually like my version more than hers now.
Lately I’d been longing for another meal, this one not handed down through the family or discovered in a cookbook but borrowed from a neighbor.
It’s been years since I’d eaten Corine’s pasta, as we called it, after the mother of the Belgian family who lived next door to my childhood home in my formative years.
The dish is relatively simple — spaghetti with bits of ham and covered in Swiss cheese, to which my mom added peas but otherwise left unchanged. But it made a lasting impression, long after Corine and her family moved back to Belgium.
Part of that may be that we didn’t eat pork products at home; my mom just didn’t like ham, and in New England, eschewing pork is a perfectly acceptable, to the point that I didn’t realize how little pork I’d eaten until moving to North Carolina.
The last time I ate Corine’s pasta likely predates my first kiss. Blame eight years of vegetarianism, beginning at the end of middle school, followed by a culinary curiosity that led me into other people’s kitchens and not my own. But when the memory of that gooey cheese, the thick-cut ham and the full-bodied taste returned to me, I found it hard to shake.
So I did what all the best chefs do, and I sought my mother’s guidance.
But despite her many cookbooks and a stack of photocopied recipes with handwritten notes that she supplied to me years ago, my mom had to work off memory for this one, too. Her instructions didn’t provide much advice.
“It’s pasta, shredded Swiss and sliced ham,” she texted me. “Some butter helps. Also ground pepper. I added peas! Just experiment.”
I really thought she knew me better than that. Nobody in their right mind would tell me to get creative in the kitchen. Just figuring out what ham to buy seemed beyond my capacity.
“I used thick-sliced deli meat ’cuz that’s what Corine did,” my mom offered. “But thick cut real cooked ham or cooked bacon would probably be delicious!”
I felt a little better prepared, decided it would be near impossible to mess up, and went for it. I forgot the butter, and she neglected to say anything about milk. And it tasted great.
But it didn’t take me back; I liked it, but this didn’t qualify as Corine’s pasta. I intuited that it needed to be thicker, and when my mom confirmed that it could use butter and milk, I gained a little confidence. I tried again, this time landing a little closer to the mark.
Part of the gap lies in the ingredients. I’d only been able to find shredded Swiss gruyere cheese, and I bought store-brand pasta. I vowed to try again, and to splurge for higher quality ingredients to achieve that flavor, that experience I longed for.
I know that in some respects, my search is in vain. I’m not overtaken by voracious hunger like I used to be when I took a shining to Corine’s pasta, back when I shot up three or four inches every year. That childhood home has been sold, and though the brick façade out front looks the same, the memories seem to fade more each year.
I haven’t seen Corine in well over a decade, closer to two. Her daughter Anne Laurie died several years ago, as a passenger in a drunk-driving accident. We were a year apart and hadn’t stayed in touch, but it shook me.
Before she passed away, I rarely thought about her. Those are the years of your life where you’re in a rush to put your childhood behind you. When I heard the news, I’d been in my hometown by coincidence — my parents don’t live there anymore — and all of the sudden I missed her, and the childhood we’d shared.
I thought about Anne Laurie as I cooked her mother’s pasta, both times, and as I fussed over the taste and wondered how I could perfect it. My childhood, the exact taste, and my old friend still felt elusive, like a dream slipping away as consciousness returns.
It’s the story of the food, I realized, more than the food itself, that fuses me to what I sought. And maybe in cooking it, and sharing the story, the memory can find more life than it does on a plate. Just like my mom’s other culinary triumphs, I figured out that this too is more about the nostalgia and resurrecting a tradition than a precise flavor. But that doesn’t mean I won’t keep pursuing it.