Mother-in-Law Camp

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Ladies, let me clear something up right away. I have New England roots, but I married into a family that’s about as Texan as they come. One saintly person smoothed this transition for me and helped me fill my knowledge gaps about local culture: my mother-in-law.

It all started with my ignorance about cornbread. I knew that in the South, they eat a lot of cornbread. I had heard it was supposed to be baked in a skillet. That was as far as my knowledge went.
My friend Vickie, who is my mom’s age, gave me some advice (mothers-in-law, take note: we call that a “life hack”) that I should ask people for their recipes, and then I could cherish a special memory of that relationship every time I cooked their dish. An excellent point.

But my pride won out, and I found a skillet cornbread recipe online. My generation thrives on Google, because it’s embarrassing to ask for help. True, I was a new bride, but I was over 30. People might laugh at me if I asked about something so basic.

I bravely baked cornbread from my new recipe. Repeatedly. I thought I had mastered it. I also thought men didn’t care very much about food. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Finally, on about the fourth time, my husband reached his tipping point and said, “Hannah, you make good cornbread, but it’s nothing like what I grew up eating. Maybe you should ask my mom for her recipe.” I’m sure all this time my mother-in-law, who had come to our house for dinner several times, had been biting her tongue waiting for me to ask for help. I’m telling you, she’s saintly.

Now it was coming at me from all angles. I broke down, called my mother-in-law and asked her if I could come visit. I actually spent a night in their guest bedroom so we could have an entire day together in the kitchen. I called it “mother-in-law camp.”

I drove out to my in-laws’ house in flip flops, but that night some kind of crazy wind storm brought in a cold front and the temperature dropped about 40 degrees. Texas weather! Who knew? In the morning I had to go outside for something, but it was too cold and rainy for flip flops. My feet are too big for my mother-in-law’s shoes, so she loaned me a pair of my father-in-law’s giant Velcro sneakers. I guess that was my chance to apply that proverb about getting to know a man by walking a mile in his shoes!

For the rest of the morning, I followed my mother-in-law around the kitchen like a baby duck, taking notes on her every move as she prepared a huge meal: squash casserole, fried okra, chicken and dumplings from scratch and, of course the cornbread. She insisted on giving me photocopies of all her recipes, but the most valuable part of the experience was hearing her narrate the process. “See? It should sizzle like this when we pour in the batter.” “I usually make this a heaping teaspoon.”

Best of all, she vulnerably shared her own story of how she had learned to cook certain dishes her husband’s way after getting married. Apparently, they went to a potluck once and he was unaware of what she had brought. He commented, “All this food is great except the chicken and dumplings. Whoever made those doesn’t know how to make chicken and dumplings!” Of course, that dish had been her contribution. With persistence, she learned to make them just the way he likes.

She let me practice spooning the dumpling batter into the boiling pot. She explained that her husband’s family prefers to keep them small, but you need to balance that out with speed so the first dumplings don’t start to overcook by the end of the process.

As we were working, my father-in-law came in from the garage. He looked over my shoulder at the stovetop. “Make sure you keep those dumplings nice and small,” he said, disappearing into the next room. I laughed. Now I could see where my husband gets his food preferences. My mother-in-law just smiled at me and kept stirring the pot.

After dinner I happily went home to my husband, who asked me how mother-in-law camp went. “It was great,” I said. “She taught me all her techniques. I learned a few things from your dad, too.”
In the end, I saw the wisdom of Vickie’s advice. I proudly keep that original cornbread recipe, in my mother-in-law’s handwriting, and think of her every time I use it. But Vickie and my mother-in-law don’t need to know that it’s in the form of a digital photo stored on my phone. ■