Catherine Toth Fox: How Family Recipes Keep Us Connected

Patch News

By Catherine Toth Fox, the Honolulu Civil Beat

April 29, 2022

I worry about my mom dying. All the time.

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Because when she’s gone, I won’t be able to call her and ask her how much Crisco she puts in her pie crust or how long she boils the Okinawan sweet potato she puts in her manju.

This is a real fear for me.

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My mom is 76 and forgets a lot of things — but not her recipes. She rarely opens a cookbook or uses the recipes she’s written on oversize index cards anymore. Everything is logged in her head, her movements almost involuntary.

For some things — like flour and butter — she accurately measures; most everything else is added by estimate. (I mean, she actually uses “eye ball” as a term of measurement.)

And then there are the unmeasurable things — how the bread dough feels in her hands, how the custard sits in the pie pan — that she never writes down, things youʻll never understand until you’ve made these recipes, too, dozens of times over five decades.

If you looked through our text exchanges, the vast majority of them are about food — and it’s usually me asking her questions, often in a panic, about one of her recipes. Because even though I have all the ingredients and directions written down, there are always, always secret tricks that are rarely noted.

To sweat cucumber slices with salt before adding the kimchi marinade, to keep the pancake batter lumpy, to add three drops of burning-hot water to the cookie dough for reasons we still don’t understand.

The author making manju with her mom and her childhood home. Catherine Toth Fox/Civil Beat

These are the little things that matter to the recipe — and what turns a simple chocolate cream pie into The Chocolate Cream Pie My Mom Makes.

We have all grown up with food specific to our family. It could be the pork adobo your grandma makes or the venison stew your uncle is famous for. Hand those recipes to someone else and it just won’t taste the same.

I realize this is true for me, too. My custard pie never turns out like my mom’s, no matter how closely I follow the recipe, no matter how many times I call her to walk me through each step. (I blame my oven.)

Food is the great connector. Homemade pickled mango or a jar of fresh lilikoi butter can bridge all sorts of gaps. I’ve seen the gruffiest surfer soften at the gift of butter mochi and an entire office come together over batches of homemade chili.

And families, specifically, greatly benefit by sharing meals. A 2020 study by the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior found that family meals not only increased fruit and vegetable consumption but strengthened family functioning — meaning relatives felt more connected to each other.

My family sat down to eat dinner together every night, without fail. And my mom, who worked a full-time job and raised four kids, somehow managed to get a complete meal on the table, including dessert. A lot of times even the bread was homemade. To me, she was a superhero, wielding a wooden spoon instead of a sword, wearing an apron instead of a cape.

Like many of us, my mom uses food in the same way we hug people. It’s a greeting — Here, have a cinnamon roll. It consoles — Here, have a cinnamon roll. It shows unconditional love — Here, have a cinnamon roll.

My mom’s manju recipe includes how much Crisco to use in the pie crust and how long to boil the Okinawan sweet potato. Catherine Toth Fox/Civil Beat

Now a mom myself, I see how food connects me and my 5-year-old son. He gets excited when he smells pancakes cooking in the kitchen. He literally applauds when I make him fried noodles — my mom’s recipe — for school lunch. He knows that what I’m cooking or baking for him is a gift, it’s that hug, it’s something he will always crave and connect to me, even when I’m gone.

In the past year, I’ve made it a point to spend time with my mom, watching her masterfully make the dishes I grew up with and frantically taking notes.

Don’t overwork the pie crust dough, use ice cubes to chill the water, scald the milk first before adding to the bread cubes, freeze your yeast. I worry that if I don’t remember how to recreate these dishes, I will lose my mom entirely. And that scares me. I want to be able to eat a bowl of beef stew or bite into a lemon bar and taste the memory of her.

These family recipes are sacred to me, puzzle pieces of my past. As we go through them, my mom tells me stories about the people who gave her the recipes: a high school classmate, a co-worker, her grandfather from Kumamoto, a sales clerk at Longs.

It’s a peek into her life, a world that kids aren’t often privy to. I see my mom as a kid picking coffee beans in Honaunau, ditching high school because she couldn’t find parking, taking dinner orders from regulars at the restaurant my grandfather ran in a bowling alley.

Long retired, she still bakes in mass amounts, taking perfectly packaged trays of date nut bars or bread pudding to the staff at doctors’ offices, which are the only people besides her family she sees with any regular frequency these days. And when she hands them her homemade goodies, their faces brighten. “Mrs. Toth made dessert again!” they call out. And my mom, her smile hidden behind her mask, beams from her eyes.

She got to hug them.

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