Last winter, I got a phone call from Mary-lou, a woman in my mother’s cooking club, inviting me to their next gathering. They were having a dinner in my mom’s honor, she said, and they wanted me to come so they could “cluck” over me.
My mom had been a member of Delicious Dishes, as the women named themselves, for the better part of a decade, and I’d always envied her participation. The last Thursday of each month, the six (sometimes five, sometimes seven) Dishes would gather to cook a multi-course menu together. They took turns hosting, and each host was responsible for selecting that month’s menu. Each member kicked in money toward groceries, usually $12 to $20 per person.
When it was my mother’s turn to host, she – in typical Nancy fashion – would spend weeks planning her menu. Often she’d bounce ideas off of me, and I’d help her find the perfect recipes for whatever theme she’d decided upon. She had a taste for the elaborate; the first time she hosted, her ambitious menu included oyster bisque, beef tenderloin stuffed with lobster, baked stuffed oranges, asparagus soufflé, apricot tart and Earl Grey ice cream. (The Dishes still crack jokes about this, in part because they didn’t sit down to eat until almost midnight that night.)
In addition to my mother and Mary-lou, the group consisted of Mom’s best friend Amy (who’s been like a second mom to me for years); Evelyn; Jenny; Jeanne; and sometimes Beverly. I’d always thought my mom was a founding member, because I have vivid memories of how and when they voted to call themselves the Delicious Dishes, but it turns out she joined several months into the group’s existence. She loved being a Dish, and I looked forward to hearing her recaps after each month’s get-together.
The truth is, I’d wanted to be a Dish for a long, long time. It just sounded like so much fun. I’d definitely inherited my mom’s love of cooking (and eating), and on more than one occasion I’d casually mentioned the idea of forming our own supper club to some of my friends who also liked to cook. (No one ever bit.)
So when Mary-lou asked me to join them for dinner last February, I was not only touched, I was excited.
Mary-lou picked a vegetarian menu for the evening. I thought it was funny because my mom was so far from a vegetarian. We made borscht, a winter casserole with herb dumplings, braised fennel with tomatoes, and a pear and hazelnut flan for dessert. It’s customary for most Dishes to sip wine while we cooked, and catch up on each other’s lives. I got a lot of questions that first night – about how I was doing, how my stepfather was doing, how Mom’s dogs were doing – but I also got to hang back and listen to the banter. There was a whole twenty-minute stretch of them comparing pre- and post-menopausal symptoms, and through it all I couldn’t stop smiling.
These were my mother’s friends. Her girls. They didn’t just cook together, they laughed together. They listened to one another. They supported each other. When Joe and I decided to throw a wedding together in 33 days, Amy talked me through details I wouldn’t have even thought of. Evelyn came and helped out in the kitchen at the reception. When mom passed away, several of the Dishes provided dessert items for funeral guests. My favorite was Jeanne’s moist chocolate chip bundt cake – which I later found out her daughter called “The Death Cake” because Jeanne only seems to make it for funerals. (We had a good laugh over this. It was REALLY good cake!)
The Dishes talked a lot about my mom that night, sharing stories about outrageous things she’d said or done. Stories that made them cry, not from sadness but from laughter.
It was more than nice.
At the end of the dinner – which truly was delicious, and which my mother would’ve loved despite the lack of animal protein involved – Mary-lou presented me with a three-ring binder full of menus my mom had planned during her time as a Dish. Tucked into the back was a sheet of paper that read “If you would like some motherly advice…” and included all of the Dishes’ contact info. My eyes filled with tears. Everything about that night was exactly what I needed, at exactly the moment I needed it most.
I was invited back to the Dishes the following month. In April, there was no dinner, because Amy was up for a volunteering award (which she won, yay!), the banquet for which fell on the last Thursday of that month. I was invited back again in May, opted out of June (because I’d just gotten back from vacation and was scrambling to get ready for a work trip), returned in July, and have attended every one since.
Around May, the Dishes voted to make me a permanent member, instead of a monthly guest. And last Thursday, just three days before my mom’s birthday, I hosted my first Delicious Dishes dinner.
I could’ve done a Halloween menu. Or, I could’ve gone with my first idea, which was to build a menu of copycat restaurant recipes. But at some point, I decided I’d do my own tribute dinner to my mom.
After she passed, my stepfather gave me huge cardboard boxes filled with large envelopes stuffed with recipes. My mother’s recipes. Some were in her own handwriting. Some were printouts photocopies with handwritten notes on them. Some were from her mother, my Nana, and some from my gram on my dad’s side. There were a bajillion columns from Nancy Coale Zippe, longtime food columnist for the News Journal, as well as clippings from PA newspapers stretching back to years before I was born – many from around the time she and my dad got married.
I couldn’t go through the boxes right away, but started to a few weeks after Mom had passed. I pulled out all of the handwritten ones and squirreled them away in an archival safe box. The rest I just marveled at. When I say there are tens of thousands of recipes, it’s no exaggeration. Then I stuffed them into a closet, because I couldn’t bear to part with a single one.
A few weeks back, I started combing through those recipes again. I was determined to create my menu solely from recipes my mom had picked out once upon a time. It was no easy feat, either; nearly 50% of them were recipes for desserts. I found maybe half a dozen salad recipes total, and not many more soups. Finding five recipes that fit the season (not to mention each other!) took me right up until two nights before, when I settled on hot sausage balls (something I remember my mom making a lot growing up), spiced pecans, corn soup with roasted poblano peppers, Texas chili served over spoon bread, and pumpkin custards. The oldest recipe came from 1973; the newest from 1993.
At Trader Joe’s, I picked up a gorgeous fall bouquet with three sunflowers in it. Sunflowers – my mother’s favorite. Her kitchen was in a sunflower motif. She never met a sunflower she didn’t like. Amy arranged the bouquet into a lovely centerpiece. It was like my mom was there with us.
One of the best parts of being a host is that you get to invite your spouse to dine with the Dishes. So they got to meet Joe. They teased us about being “newlyweds,” and cooed over how cute Joe and I were. (It’s true. We’re pretty freaking adorable.) They also cooed over Scout and how cute he is, too.
I’m so grateful to the Dishes, for who they were to my mom and who they now are to me. And I felt so lucky to be able to share that night with them, and to honor my mom’s memory in that way.
I knew she’d approve.