Keeper of the Family Recipe

A fringe benefit of owning a family holiday is that I became a keeper of the official scalloped potatoes recipe. An official recipe can be recognized by a simplicity of ingredients and techniques surrounded by an air of mystery. The dish is considered necessary to the event. The keeper gets calls from family on the proper ratio of things, this being necessary because the recipe is not written down. I am the keeper of the scalloped potatoes! I made it a few times with my Dad by my side offering advice and memories. I talked about it with my Cape Cod Uncle, but it was clear that he had already deviated a bit. I watched my great-uncle make it at the old family compound in Cattaraugus. County. He always served it with ham and ham with it and I do too.

I actually never liked ham and scalloped potatoes. The ham tasted too salty to me, and my great uncle would push his housekeeper aside brusquely to take over preparations. When it was time to eat the housekeeper’ place was set in the kitchen. My sisters and I considered that the height of rudeness and when it became clear that she would not be invited into the dining room we took our plates and moved with her into the kitchen.

We judged our uncle harshly. He drove Cadillacs! His house had Venetian blinds! He would kiss us hello on the mouth! He smoked cigars! I had to beg my father to stop him from selling insurance to my groom on our wedding day.

At the funeral dinner of his brother, my Father’s father, he had the audacity to pick up the carving tools. My Dad was 16, his brothers even younger, and the death had been sudden and unexpected. My Grandmother put her hand on his arm and said “No, Philip. Lee will carve.” This ritual was considered somewhat sacred in the family. Stories like this one are told during the preparation of official recipes.

At least with me as the cook, being the keeper of the recipe brings memories of overfilled dishes, burnt milk smells, soggy or dry potatoes. But when they come out perfect, the potatoes are moist and tender, a hint of caramelizing on top, the perfect backdrop to a forkful of ham.

Here it is: no measurements. Peel some baking potatoes and keep them in cold salted water till you are ready to slice them. Butter a baking dish generously. Slice the potatoes and an onion on a mandolin being careful not to cut yourself. Build layer after layer of the following: potato slices, pieces of onion ring, salt, pepper, a sprinkling of flour, chunks of butter, till you have come halfway up your baking dish. Finish with dusting of flour, salt, pepper and butter. Pour top milk over the potatoes till the milk comes halfway up the potato layers (for those of you not living near a real dairy substituting whole milk of half and half would work.) Cover with aluminum foil and bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes. Check the doneness of the potatoes now and every 5 minutes till just tender. You might need to add a little milk if they seem dry. Take the aluminum foil off and bake for 5 to 10 minutes more. Serve without apology.

I have to report that my Cape Cod Uncle used heavy cream instead of top milk, and insisted that you should only make 3 layers. But he was always a rebel.