A Family History: Bagna Cauda
July 15, 2009
The other day, as I was looking through my mom’s collection of cookbooks, searching for some recipes to deal with our cash crop of zucchinis, I stumbled upon a blue binder clasping thick, yellowed pages and stuffed with wrinkled clippings. I quickly leafed through the clippings and turned to the first page. “Fern Eunice (6/22/1905 – 7/25/1977) m. Joseph Welle” ran across the top in my grandmother’s all-caps handwriting and below that a list of names, Marguerite, Sharon, Barbara Jo, Kenneth, Scott, Douglass. It seemed to be a family tree of sorts, though its logic was obtuse and the family members obscure. As I flipped the page, I realized what I held; it was the Davis Family Cook Book, inscribed by my grandmother, “With family love and tradition to my daughter Lauri, Mother 1979.”
The Davis Family Cook Book says a lot about my family—and about 1979. For instance, here’s the order of the table of contents. Appetizers, Beverages, Candy, Desserts and Breads, Meats and Main Dishes, Salads, Relishes and Preserves, Soups, and Vegetables. Clearly, there’s a sweet tooth running through my family tree. Not to mention that there are thirty pages of desserts, yet only ten sorry pages devoted to main dishes.
I love the titles of these recipes, like the opening one for “Truly Different Cheese Ball.” What, I wonder, makes one cheese ball different from another, and what makes this one truly different? “Sure Thing Roll Out Cookies” is quaint, and you know “Everybody’s Favorite Cheese Spread” must be good.
The salad section makes me nostalgic for a church potluck in the Midwest, where my grandmother’s family comes from. There are layered salads, a few recipes for coleslaw, some fruit salads, and of course, Jello salad. In fact, there are eleven recipes for some sort of Jello salad, though my favorite horror is this recipe for “Pineapple Salad,” which calls for pineapple tidbits, miniature marshmallows, and Velveeta cheese.
Casseroles, also, were then at their peak of fashion, and recipes abound. There are six for broccoli casserole alone in the, as I’ve mentioned before, relatively brief savory food section. There’s even one for “Casserole Bread,” a mix of bread stuffed with cottage cheese, minced onions, and dill.
My Aunt Lynda’s contributions, however, are my favorite. My aunt, in 1979, was twenty-five years old, and her recipes, like “Lynda’s Health Drink,” which calls for banana, strawberries, apple juice, and ice, or “Graham Cracker Crisp,” whose ingredients are a box of graham crackers, butter, brown sugar and chopped nuts, hardly warrant being written down. There’s something endearing, however, about my twenty-five year old aunt and her “Whip Cream Delight Cake,” especially because she’s a central cook in the family now.
What I love about this cookbook is this frozen glimpse of my family thirty years ago. I can hear my aunt reading aloud her instructions to “Lynda’s 7 Day Sweet Pickles”: “Slice cucumbers real thin.” My mother’s contribution of “Heidelburg Cake” is clearly a result of her recent study abroad experience, and my grandmother’s recipes for icings hint at her soon-to-be profession as a cake maker. The recipe for “Springerle (Anise Cookie),” which my mother still makes at Christmastime every year, was first written down here.
I haven’t made any of these recipes. The Velveeta and Jello seem dated for our modern palates. So I won’t leave you with one of those, though I know you were probably tempted by the “Truly Different Cheese Ball.” So what I will leave you with is the recipe for Bagna Cauda, a dish I thought my family invented (and which I also thought was spelled “banyacotta”), until I saw it one day in The Joy of Cooking. This recipe is a staple at family gatherings and also the reason why we plan family gatherings around not having to speak with other people any time soon (garlic, anchovies—need I say more?). So here, in my Aunt Lynda’s words, is the recipe for Bagna Cauda…
Dip cabbage and bread into the Bagna Cauda to eat it.
6-7 cans of flat anchovies (drained)
3-4 boxes of Land o Lakes unsalted butter
Garlic, 10-12 bulbs chopped or garlic pre-chopped
Fresh Italian bread to catch drippings
Cabbage/ Chinese cabbage
Get an electric skillet, put it on medium heat. Not too hot or it will burn your garlic.
A LOT of garlic…you can cheat and buy the chopped (NOT MINCED) garlic but it doesn’t have the same flavor, not as good. If you do buy fresh, you need to chop it not mince.
Melt butter, sautéing the garlic half way golden brown, then add more butter (I use only Land o Lakes – not salted). Then add your anchovies, about six cans (I drain the liquid off of them first). Add more butter, stir constantly.
Let the mixture cook down. It will get like a crust around the edges of the skillet, just push it down and stir more.
Tonight, I gathered up all the recipes I had lying around the house, an old notebook, and a glue stick. Then I compiled them all into a notebook, complete with a family history of the reason there are 2 versions of cornbread (one is my mom’s, the other is my dad’s mom’s) and other such memories. It’s not quite a cookbook, more like a recipe memorybook, with little tidbits about the person who gave me that recipe or the first time I tried to cook with kale.
Then I read your blog post! I wonder if one day my niece will stumble across it and wonder, “why the hell are there so many recipes involving lentils?!” or “what is odyssey, who is durham barnes, and why does the gingerbread pancake recipe look so loved?”
I love this post. Most of the women who contributed those recipes are no longer here-you never knew them. Your article reminds me how time ticks mercilessly, dating what we love, taking those we love. And yet in that flow, the young come along, remember the old, and honor the past when they create a space for it in the present. Love you much, Mama
Ah Elisabeth, you have opened my jar of memories again – perhaps because you were fortunate enough who knew some of thse women who anxiously wrote down “their” favorite recipes that we always expected when we ate with them. No one ever consiered having a “secret” ingredient she couldn’t share. Sharing is what our family was about. Along with whispered secrets about a problem someone was having, until it was a secret to the whole clan who then worried for that person and prayed for them – each woman considering it a secret.
My great aunts and grandma and all my aunts are now dead. We – the cousins – are the old folks of the family now. So I cherish even more the hand written receipes they all gave me. I have them in safe seperate file. Our secretary and I franticlly typed each one in an attempt to get the books done by Christmas. It was a wonderful thing when we finished – as good as having a book on the market as a best seller. As children married, I would be called up to print a new book for them. My own two sons, in their 40’s have requested copies. It seems the first wives kept the books! One nephew in a battle over what belonged to whom said, “That is my family history book, amd I insist on having it!”
Thank you sweetheart for bringing these fond memories to mind when I’m at an age to be considered “the old folks” and having seen them die and even some cousins. When I get out that cook book, my mother is back in the kitchen with me deciding what I should make. Of course it’s a dessert.
With love to you for caring and carrying on.
1 – This post is hilarious. 2 – Anchovies are gross. 3 – Why were jello salads ever a thing? I’ve often wondered. 4 – What does chopping garlic do that mincing does not? I’m trying to learn how to cook. It’s going really slowly. 5 – Any idea how to make easy pizza dough? I love you. I miss you. Let’s go move to new york or something.
So great and I’m definitely trying Bagna Cauda as soon as I leave my fish-hating house mate. Also, Elhenry–I’m assuming you are Elhenry, that is–can I have the well-loved gingerbread pancake recipe?
Work it out.. And you better dance it off after you eat these.. Can’t wait to see you!
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[…] time, I had no idea that banyacotta was not just something that had been handed down in my family from generation to generation. All of the friends I told about the dish – it’s a dip of butter, garlic, and anchovies and you […]