To My Culinary Muse, My Auntie Lorilee

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We lost my Auntie Lorilee to cancer 9 years ago today. I was there holding her hand when she passed, my uncle and cousin weeping quietly by her side; my mother softly quoting Psalm 23. The day of her wake was on Halloween and for years when October came around I wanted to go to a dark corner and hide until the season had passed and I could go back to burying the pain.

And literally as I am writing this, tears streaming down my face, trying to find the words for what changed in me, this Jesus Culture song came on iTunes and the words say it all…

There’s a joy that triumphs over fear
There’s a laughter that wipes away all tears
There’s a presence that changes atmospheres
There’s a name
We will fix our eyes on the One who overcame
We will stand in awe of the One who breaks the chains
Joy has a name
Joy has a name
Jesus

That year I threw a Halloween Party as a way to celebrate the victory I have in Christ and to celebrate my Auntie’s life. My aunt was notorious for not only throwing a party, but being the life of the party. And she would find reasons to throw a party, like the 2007 super bowl when the Colts made it all the way and she insisted she had ALWAYS been Peyton Manning’s biggest fan. I got to continue my Halloween Party tradition this year with my new group of friends in St. Pete whom I love so much! And the whole time getting ready I thought of my Auntie Lor, as I often do while I’m in the kitchen. She’s always been my culinary muse, and I am thankful beyond words for the time God gave me with her.

Even though this photo is blurry (iphone cameras have come a long way in the last decade), it’s one of my favorites as it’s the epitome of my aunt’s courage. She was an avid American Idol fan, and my uncle, mom & I got tickets for us all to see them live in Hartford. Her brain tumor was so sever at that point that her vision was limited and she had started having seizures. But she was SO excited to be at that concert and marched in there sporting a neck pillow, sunglasses and noise-minimizing headphones, a memory I will never forget. I’ve been sharing my memories of her for the past few years on this day as a way to celebrate her life, and am always thinking of the lives she touched, the memories this post stirs up in all those who loved her, and the encouragement this post could give to all those who need it. I wrote it while living in the Philippines and never imagined that within such a short time we would lose my Uncle too. He always replied to my post with a memory of my aunt, telling me how much he loved and missed her. Amidst the pain I can again rejoice, knowing that my aunt and uncle are together again…

This is a very special post, dedicated to my Auntie Lorilee.  Although cancer took her life 6 years ago today, she didn’t loose the battle.  She fought with endless courage, bravery, determination, and strength.  And she did so with unfathomable joy, a sense of humor like no other, and a voracious appetite and command in the kitchen!  And it was her love of feeding people, her excitement over good food, and the enjoyment she got from sharing it with others, that inspired me as a fledgling cook and is a source of continual inspiration as I now cook for others. 

Auntie Lor would find something she liked…and soon we all liked it!  Now, our whole family is obsessed with good food.  It’s the focal point of all gatherings, celebrations, and holidays.  Of course we’re there to spend time with each other, but where do us women gather?  In the kitchen!  The food is our source of tradition, it’s what we fuss over, it’s what we talk about…”did you see Grandma’s apple pies?!”…“wow, this is a great batch of Auntie MJ’s crab dip!”…”oh the kids helped me decorate the cookies!”…”I used pears instead of apples this time”…“I tried this new recipe from Gourmet…” that was Auntie Lor.  Thanksgiving is coming up, and one of my favorite dishes in addition to Grandma’s French meat stuffing and Auntie Linda’s pumpkin bread, is Auntie Lorilee’s sweet potato casserole.  I’ve loved it for as long as I can remember, but only found out as I got older that it didn’t always grace our dinner plate but got it’s humble start as one of Auntie Lor’s new recipes she tried that year.  And I could go on with examples of such dishes…cranberry Waldorf salad, Charlotte’s chocolate cake, egg strata, chocolate crinkle cookies, apple cake…

It’s funny how certain things stick with you.  Lock-and -lock containers.  Auntie Lor tried one, was hooked on their “locking” ability as a means of keeping leftovers fresh, and soon had a whole pantry stacked with every shape and size imaginable.  And she told everyone about them!  I’m sure that half of Rutland was going to their nearest lock-and-lock supplier and stocking up.  She should have received commission!  Eventually they lost their popularity in the states, probably as PCB fears gave rise to the use of glass storage containers.  Every once and a while I’d see one and chuckle.  Then I moved to the Philippines.  My first trip to the grocery store I was already shocked at how many familiar products lined the shelves, and in searching for some plastic containers I found…you guessed it, lock-and-locks!  But that was just a small display.  I soon learned there are entire lock-and-lock stores here!  I can’t help but laugh every time I pass by one.  Auntie Lor exuded the kind of passion and energy that she could make even a simple plastic container exciting and “lock” into my brain!

It was this passion and excitement, coupled with how absolutely delicious everything that came out of her kitchen was, that drew me into the kitchen with her.  I’ll never forget sitting in the kitchen, mesmerized as Auntie Lor explained to me the science behind a flaky pie crust.  How the butter MUST remain chilled and in small chunks, because since butter contains about 15% water, once it enters a hot oven that water turns to steam, and that steam forms layers in the dough that result in a puffy, flaky, tender crust.  I went home and soon after baked my first strawberry rhubarb pie with an all butter pie crust.  (It was Grandma who taught me how to bake my first-ever pie – apple with a shortening crust; the two equally delicious and memorable!)  Auntie Lor made a special breakfast cereal that she once gave me a small bite of.  It was amazing!  I again stood transfixed as she explained her technique: combine bran flakes, fiber twigs, shredded coconut, and slivered almonds.  Drizzle with maple syrup, spread on a jelly roll pan, and bake; every 5 minutes removing from the oven, drizzling with a bit more maple syrup, and stirring.  For the final touch, add golden raisins with yet another drizzle of maple, and bake for one last increment.  This cereal inspired me to start making a maple almond granola, which after a few tweaks I perfected the recipe for and soon had my family hooked on.  Again, I could go on and on with similar stories of the ways Auntie Lor inspired me, instructed me, encouraged me, and fueled the spark that drove me to becoming a chef.

When Auntie Lor got sick and we all started visiting frequently, it was just known that we would show up with food.  There was no preemptive phone call of, “should I bring something for dinner?” but instead, “I was thinking of making spinach manicotti for dinner.  How does that sound?  Do you want to get the bread from Babalouies?”  Bringing a meal is not something that’s expected in the sense that it’s taken for granted, rather it’s because the act of making a meal is an outpouring of love, an extension of oneself, and this sentiment is mutually shared by all who gather at the dinner table.  Auntie MJ probably made enough meatballs to feed half of Rutland, not to mention clam sauce, francese, manicotti…and so many more amazing Italian dishes that came pouring out of her kitchen with the same love and care as new olive oil flows from the press.  And this held true for the rest of the women in our family as well.  But there’s no way Auntie Lor would let us do all the cooking!  As soon as we’d arrive, it was off to the farmers market to buy ingredients.  Then Auntie Lor would sit and instruct her fleet of sous chefs on just how exactly she wanted the vegetables prepped for the terrine, how the butternut soup should be thinned and seasoned, how to assemble the chocolate raspberry pie (an experience my mom will never forget!), how long to bake the morning glory muffins…

We ate a lot, and we ate well over those 16 months! 

We spent a weekend together on Cape Cod at Auntie Mj and Uncle V’s house.  Auntie Lor instructed me on how to make her famous quattro formaggio.  She had brought all the ingredients, and as I went to chiffonade all the basil, she insisted I leave a perfect sprig untouched.  As I pulled the bubbling cheesy crostini from the oven and transferred them to a Polish Pottery platter, she simply but beautifully garnished one side of the platter with the flourish of basil.  That simple herb made the dish complete, and little did I know that not too long after, I would spend countless nights that turned into years, garnishing platters in my job as a catering chef – again thinking of Auntie Lor all the while.

Yes, writing this post is emotional and oh so bittersweet.  But you know that unfathomable joy I said she lived each day with?  It wasn’t just because she lived for a good joke, and had a family whom she loved to pieces, and amazing friends who surrounded her.  It was because she knew that this life wasn’t the end.  She knew that her Redeemer Lives!  I am grateful beyond measure to have had her as my Auntie – for her presence in my life, for all that she taught me, for her influence and inspiration, for these precious memories that flood my mind regularly – and that I know without a doubt that I will see her again one day.  

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