Before I left my home in New Orleans for college, my mom handed me a beautiful blue and white book. It was filled with old family recipes and dishes we’d cooked together in various kitchens throughout my childhood. Recipes for the holidays, for birthdays, and other family-centric celebrations. She passed it off to me excitedly as we were standing in the middle of her dimly lit kitchen, knowing how much joy I’d find in recreating the dishes we’d made countless times before. We were each filled with hope for the four years of careless fun and intensive learning that I was about to embark on. (I’m serious about that learning bit—I always have been, and probably always will be, a “knerd for knowledge”. Ha, I should make a bumper sticker out of that!)
But that’s not how my college years unfolded. Not exactly, anyway.
You see, two days after I arrived in my new dorm digs, Hurricane Katrina hit my hometown. The Weather Channel’s feed played quietly, constantly, on my 14-inch television. Me curled up on my single bed watching every minute for updates.
Having not yet made any close friends at my new school, I spent the majority of those next few weeks alone. I’d use every ounce of energy I could muster to drag myself to class every day before returning to the quiet solitude of my dorm room, thankful that I could let the tears flow freely there without having to fake a smile. Without having to pretend that I gave a shit about the frat parties and college football games that all of the other freshman were so excited about.
Most kids who go away for college are comforted by the fact that they can return home in a few months’ time to reconnect with old friends, visit with family, and go to all of their favorite spots around town. But mere hours into my “college experience,” and I realized I no longer had a hometown to go home to. Not one that felt like home anyway.
But believe it or not, Hurricane Katrina turned out to be the “easy” hardship of my freshman year in college…by a long shot. Because six months later, someone very special to me passed away unexpectedly. The pain from that was unlike anything I had ever felt before. It’s a pain that still feels razor sharp even today, almost a decade later.
And while the holidays are generally filled with joy, smiles, happiness, and lots of sugary sweets, paradoxically, the sadness from that tragic event also feels stronger during this time of year. As if someone were holding a magnifying glass to it and forcing me to examine it with intense scrutiny.
For the post closest to Christmas, I wanted to share with you a recipe that has been in my family for years, one for Southern Baked Cheese Grits. I don’t know where it came from or when we started making it. All I remember is that this buttery, bright orange appetizer has been a staple at our annual Christmas Eve fête for the last two decades. It’s creamy middle and crispy cheese topping the centerpiece of so much joy and so many memories.
And though I know the recipe by heart, every time I make it, I still pull out that old blue and white family recipe book that my mom handed to me before I left for that first fateful year of college.
The book is now overflowing with loose pages of new recipes that we’ve tried over the years, which my unorganized self has been too lazy to file. Many of the pages are now sticky with the spills and crumbs of a decade’s worth of cooking. And when I pulled it out earlier this week, I peeled one loose page from where it sat stuck to the inside of the front cover. I tugged at it slowly, gently, trying to preserve the photos and note that my mom had pasted on its inside.
Words she’d written when we were both blissfully unaware of what the world had in store for us just months later.
It had been years since I’d looked at that part of the book. But when I re-read her message earlier this week alone in my tiny Portland bungalow, I couldn’t help but cry, much like I had my first week of college.
And so to end this post, I want to leave you with her words, unedited. Just as they were written almost a decade ago.
But before I do, I want to wish each and every one of you a happy holiday season. Wherever you are, I hope your holidays are filled with good food shared with family and friends and cheerful memories of loved ones, no matter how near or far.
So many holidays, so many memories.
Memories of delicious tastes and aromas, cooking together.
So here is your very own recipe book…with all those memories from generations.
May your “Holiday Cookbook” be the first of many in which you also collect shared joy, love, laughter, and good eats with yourself and with those you love because, after all…
It is in the sharing that we truly grow in spirit and joy, and it is in the memories that we remain in each other’s hearts forever.
Your adoring mom who loves you always.
- 1½ cups of uncooked grits (regular or quick grits work, but do not use instant), plus water for cooking
- ½ cup (1 stick) of butter
- ½ to 1 teaspoon of cayenne pepper, depending on spice level preferences
- 1 teaspoon of garlic salt
- 1 teaspoon of sea salt
- 1 pound of sharp cheddar cheese, grated; plus 2 ounces for topping
- 3 eggs, beaten
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
- Follow package directions on the grits to cook in a large pot. Directions will vary depending on which kind of grits you are using; however, regardless of which package you're using, do not add the recommended salt. You will season the grits later in the cooking process.
- Once grits are finished cooking, add the butter, cayenne, garlic salt, sea salt, and 1 pound of grated cheese. Mix well, making sure to beat out any clumps of grits. (I find using a strong whisk works well for this.) Taste test and adjust the spices if necessary. When finished seasoning, beat the eggs into the grits.
- Butter a 9- to 12-inch baking dish and pour cheese grits into the dish. (You can also do this is an extra-large, about 14-inch, cast iron skillet.) Top with the remaining 2 ounces of grated cheese and bake for 1 hour and 15 minutes, or until cheese on the top begins to brown and crisp.
- Once grits are finished baking, remove from the oven. If you want your grits to be able to be sliced evenly, allow to sit on a wire wrack to cool for at least 1 hour. If, like me, you prefer to eat your grits hot from the oven and don't mind them being a little messier to eat, scoop from the pan and eat immediately.