My mother’s kitchen opened into our family room, long before such floor plans became the rage. Our lives revolved around that space and the rhythms of the Greek Orthodox year. The large counter wound around with soft, cushioned stools for spectators who could listen to Pavarotti or the Cubs while basking in the enticing scents of fresh baked bread or cinnamon, nuts and butter emanating from the double ovens in perpetual use. Rarely did we just watch; we rolled and mixed and measured. We offered our contributions for a taste of what was to come, so often inspired by tradition – Tsoureki, Greek sweet bread for Easter, Tiropita for the New Year, and pastries anytime. For my family, food – the preparing, the savoring, the sharing – nurtured connection.
The kitchen housed the balance of my parents’ relationship. My mother cooked and baked and my father cleaned and ate. Together, they mastered a dance that filled our hearts and our stomachs. My mother would begin, melting butter, sifting flour, grinding nuts. My father would follow behind, cleaning everything by hand so my mother wouldn’t have to. He used to tease that it was her walk that first attracted him over sixty years ago when she worked in my grandparents’ restaurant. For forty-two years, he followed that walk in every kitchen with a sense of thanksgiving and joy, which we knew went far deeper than butter and flour.
Growing up, I marked my progression through the recipes I could master, singular feats that took years to perfect. When she announced, “Better than mine,” my heart leapt. From scratch biscuits to sour cream coffee cake, my offerings when I came from Chicago to visit taught me the fullness of giving back. Married and with a home and family of my own, when I make each batch of Baklava or her signature Kourembiethes, (almond butter cookies covered in powdered sugar that our Minnesota-born son affectionately calls snow cookies), my kitchen becomes hers.
From holidays to Sunday lunches and weekday dinners, our family gathered at the table where we shared more than a meal. We shared our lives. Conversations stretched for hours until consideration of the next meal would be upon us. With our sons, those conversations have continued around our own dining room table, filled with familiar feasts, keeping those links to our loved ones and connections with each other alive and thriving.
In my mother’s final hours in hospice, she was at once with me in that beautiful, little room and in our family home surrounded by her loved ones who had passed on before her. And of course, there was food. Her oldest sister stood before her holding a tray of Koulouria, Greek butter cookies of which there are as many recipes as villages. “Your Yiayia Melpo’s recipe,” she said when I asked which ones, “The cakey ones with a touch of orange.” One of our last conversations would connect family and food.
For her first memorial service, I made trays of Koulouria, the cakey kind.
Running my fingers over stain-splattered cookbooks marked with her elegant script eased my grief. In the kitchen, she was with me. Through layering phyllo dough, toasting almonds or browning butter to just the right point, we stay connected. To this day, that smell of melting butter brings me right back to my mother’s kitchen, to her, to home. Her recipes taught me more than feeding a family, they taught me how to nurture it by sharing her gift. From trays of Trigona, flaky triangles of phyllo dough filled with butter and feta cheese (kept in the freezer just in case), to batches of Pixemathia, Greek biscotti, sent to fraternity houses and dorm rooms in Nebraska and Texas, her love extends through my hand.