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Life Lessons From Mom's Recipe Books

A funny thing happened about six months after my mother died: I began to take an interest in cooking

By Margie Zable Fisher
Multiple handwritten recipes on paper. Next Avenue, mother's day, mom's recipes
"Why did Mom give me a recipe book? I wasn't sure, and I never asked. Maybe she hoped when I got married I would become more interested in cooking (I didn't)."  |  Credit: Getty

Growing up, I was an uninterested cook. As a young adult living on my own, I survived on pasta, sub sandwiches and cereal for dinner. Nevertheless, when I was first married, my mother, Rona, gave me a recipe book. 

This particular recipe book wasn't the standard wedding gift fare — "Joy of Cooking," anyone? That book would have probably ended up in the trash. Instead, Mom made me a homemade recipe book. 

On her electric typewriter (this was 30 years ago), she typed out about 50 recipes on 5.5" x 8.5" three-hole punched paper and put them in a small black binder.  

Why did Mom give me a recipe book? I wasn't sure, and I never asked. Maybe she hoped when I got married I would become more interested in cooking (I didn't). And believed there were times (potlucks, parties) when I'd actually need to cook or bake something (there were).    

In hindsight, my lack of interest in cooking shouldn't have surprised her. 

Quick Recipes

Mom was a great cook and cooked pretty much every night. As a single parent, she was always on a budget and planned dinners around weekly grocery sales. Mom also had little time after work, so she made quick recipes. 

My job was to clean up. I didn't mind it. Luckily, I married a man who liked to cook, and who was fine with my role as cleaner-upper.  

So Mom's recipe book was used only occasionally. For many years my go-to potluck contribution was "5-Minute Chocolate Mousse Pie," with four ingredients: Cool Whip, milk, instant pudding mix and a pie shell, or "Rona's Pasta Salad," with ziti, frozen vegetables, sliced olives, Good Seasons dressing and Parmesan cheese. 

Once in a great while, I was inspired to try one of the more complicated recipes, usually ones that featured chicken. The chicken was almost always overcooked, and the seasonings fell flat. 

When my mom passed away last year, grief consumed me for months, and cooking was the last thing on my mind. But a funny thing happened about six months after she died: I began to take an interest in cooking. 

It started when I was flipping through People Magazine (I inherited the subscription from Mom). I generally skip the recipes, but I noticed one that looked interesting, from Reba McEntire, titled, "Chicken Thighs With Olives and Prunes." 

A funny thing happened: I began to take an interest in cooking.

Reba's comment on the recipe, "You can't mess it up," may have been the push I needed to get cooking, and I did. And, miracle of miracles, it was great, and I've made it several times since. 

This past Thanksgiving, our first without Mom, I pulled out my recipe book and found Mom's recipe for "Sure Success Moist Turkey." When I started looking at the ingredients to add to our shopping list, I began to cry. Mom loved turkey, and Thanksgiving was her favorite holiday. I remembered how she was always so excited to take home leftover turkey, and sometimes even made her own small turkey to make sure she had enough.

I got excited to try my friend's prune sausage stuffing recipe for Thanksgiving. Ten phone calls later, my patient friend was probably regretting her decision to offer help. I bought the wrong kind of sausage (who knew there was such a thing as ground sausage?) and don't even get me started on how to make enough dry, cubed, French bread. The bottom line: the stuffing was dry and only so-so. 


'I Could Make That'

I was recovering from my stuffing fiasco when someone mentioned "Marry Me Chicken" on Facebook. The recipe included sundried tomatoes, which I love, but I'm trying to cut out dairy, so I looked up the recipe for the Whole 360 version. It wasn't very good. After we ate, my husband and I discussed how I might change the recipe the next time so it would be better. 

A few weeks later, as I was going through the last of my mom's effects, I found a recipe book that she had created for herself. I never knew about it and had never noticed her using it.  

Her recipe book contained some of the same recipes as my recipe book, including "Rona's Meatloaf," "Margie's Salmon-Macaroni Salad" and "Chocolate Chewy Squares." 

But it also contained many others. 

I chuckled as I saw my childhood staple, "American Chop Suey," made with stewed tomatoes, ground beef and elbow macaroni. She hadn't included it in my book, probably because I always bought jarred tomato sauce. 

When I found at least six similar recipes for pork with apricot preserves, I wish I could have asked her, "How come you rarely made any of those dishes?" After all, I love apricot preserves, and the recipes didn't look complicated. 

Then I had one of those Aha! moments. 

For the last few years, we had dinner every Sunday night with Mom. Most of the time my husband would make the meal, occasionally Mom would make the meal, and once in a blue moon I'd make the meal (remember Rona's Meatloaf?). 

'I could make that,' I thought. 'And I should.'

Since Mom's passing, we had been raising a glass to Mom every Sunday night (she loved her red wine). My Aha! moment came after looking at a recipe for pork loin roast with apricot preserves. 

"I could make that," I thought. "And I should make that on Sunday night." 

So I did. And, not surprisingly, it was a super easy recipe but it was way too salty and overcooked. Note: a half teaspoon of salt is not the same as dumping a bunch of it in a bowl. Also note: use the thermometer. 

Still, it was easy to make. And I had a second Aha! moment. Why not make a recipe from her book every Sunday? 

What? I stopped myself. Had I been overtaken by aliens? How could I commit to making a weekly meal, when the words "What's for dinner?" have always terrified me? 

But then I thought: It's only one dinner a week. And it would honor Mom. And help me deal with my grief. 

So the next week I found a recipe in her book for chicken breasts with capers, lemons and artichokes. It was not very good. The chicken, again, was overcooked. This time, it was because I bought chicken cutlets, not chicken breasts. And I didn't understand the concept of deglazing. 

Then I had one more Aha! moment. I realized that with both recipe books, Mom had provided me with something more important than recipes. She had given me valuable life lessons. 

A Mother Knows

When I was first married, the recipe book of easy recipes was exactly what I needed. I didn't realize it at the time, but Mom did. The life lesson I learned was that sometimes we provide guidance to our kids that they don't realize is important, but we do. And sometimes we just have to give them our advice or suggestions or recipe books and leave it to them to figure out how to use it in their lives. This life lesson is something I reflect on when trying to help out my daughter. 

I can picture my Mom nodding her approval and laughing

Finding Mom's recipe book ten months after she passed away provided another life lesson: that grief and the desire to honor someone who passed away can guide us to positive actions that we never before thought possible.   

So even though I'm probably never going to be Julia Child, I'm going to keep honoring Mom by making Sunday dinners with her recipes. Hopefully, some will be edible. 

I can picture my mom nodding her approval and laughing at my antics. And I have a secret weapon, too.  

Whenever I'm unsure of myself, especially when I'm making a new recipe, I just look at the note that I keep on my bulletin board from Mom: 

Dear Margie, 

I believe in you. 

Love Always, 


Photograph of Margie Zable Fisher
Margie Zable Fisher is a freelance writer and the founder of The 50-Year-Old Mermaid, where she and other 50+ women share their learnings and experiences on living their best lives after 50. Her website is Read More
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