The Secret Family Recipe for a First Course

My sister-in-law S. texted me recently, asking how to make my mother’s cauliflower dip. Pretty easy: ketchup, mayonnaise, and a little Worcestershire…should be a bit runny. Sounds yummy, huh? If you’re not a fan of cauliflower, and most people aren’t, you have to try this dip. It’s tangy and flavorful and it makes those washed-out white trees totally worth eating. Plus, it’s fun to dip the awkward stalks into the sauce. Now and then, S. asks for recipes such as cauliflower dip because they’re not written down anywhere—this one’s a ridiculous combination of condiments and who wants such genius to be publicly discoverable? It’s a family dip, and so we know the secret recipe—and that’s all who needs to know it.

This dip has earned a spot on our list of preferred hors d’oeuvres: Pickapeppa sauce and cream cheese on Triscuits, kielbasa sautéed with onions, sardines on Saltines, colossal olives in garlic, and cauliflower dip. While I don’t eat these things frequently anymore, when I do, I get all happy inside. They bring me back to the 1970s when we sat around in the early evenings watching The Hardy Boys and Star Trek while our parents sipped martinis and we’d all be dunking white stalks into a beautiful pumpkin-orange dip. It was a colorful experience.

These appetizers are one of the few ways we can still feel close to our mom—they’re a simple legacy she left behind. But the cauliflower dip makes me think, What’s my legacy? What will my son cook 40 years from now, in order to remember our special times? Hamburgers? DiGiorno Pizza? Annie’s Shells & Pasta? He does love that little purple box. It’s not that I can’t cook—I just don’t. I work full-time, I teach, and I have a lot of interests so I don’t have time to read Better Homes & Gardens or watch Rachael Ray. I prefer baking to cooking, because I can have the ingredients in my house at all times. I avoid food shopping as much as is humanly possible.

But this doesn’t mean I don’t value the cultural meaning attached to food. One of the most endearing things I found about my boyfriend D. when I first met him was that he knew how to steam an artichoke. Even more impressive, he knew how to eat it. Not many New Englanders are artichoke-eaters—you can’t find these delicacies in farm stands out East. So even in the supermarket, most New Englanders cling to their brown bread and baked beans and study the leafy, prickly vegetables with great suspicion. But somehow D. was in the know. To surprise us, he’ll buy three plump artichokes and steam them with garlic. The garlic is his idea—my mother never did that part—but they taste great just the same. I showed D. how to trim the ends of the leaves with scissors—that’s my mother’s aesthetic contribution. So now I have a little of both of them in my vegetable of the day.

That’s a good place to be, I guess. A little of then, a little of now. A little of my mom, a little of me. And there’s always cauliflower dip if I need it. The silly ingredients are in the fridge, no matter what. It’s having the cauliflower in the crisper that presents the challenge. That might require the dreaded visit to Stop & Shop.

Maybe next time I’m there I’ll pick up some sardines and saltines.