By Anne Maxwell
Nestled in one of my lower kitchen cabinets rests a dish that’s not often used.
Changes are you have the very same pan among your household contents. It’s a 9x13 white Corelle casserole dish. Adorned with blue cornflowers on the side, it’s nice and deep, with wide handles -- a timeless tried-and-true design enjoyed by countless cooks throughout recent decades.
Though unremarkable in function or design, it’s special to me. Which brings me back to why it does not enjoy frequent use. Because when I do use it -- it’s used to bake one thing and one thing only: my mother-in-law’s lasagna.
A home economics teacher, there wasn’t anything Karen couldn’t sew, bake, cook or can. The list of her enviable meals, luscious desserts and intricate handiwork stretches endlessly in my mind. But it was her lasagna that made the top of the list for my husband and many in the family. And it was the first meal I ever ate at her table a few weeks after meeting my husband-to-be that he invited me to supper with his parents at their farmhouse.
“Mom’s making her lasagna,” he mentioned. “It’s my favorite.”
While lasagna wasn’t at the bottom of my list, it was nowhere near the top. Most of my experiences with the traditional Italian dish had been sub-par, beginning with the lukewarm clump of soggy noodles served up at school and spanning potlucks with dry ricotta and underwhelming marinara. My parents’ families were both of German descent. A phenomenal bierock was easy to come by in our house, good lasagna was not.
But when you’re young and in love, you’ll dare to walk through just about any fire, even if it means politely partaking of a less-than-desirable main course.
I hadn’t even put the napkin on my lap when the white dish that is now a staple in my kitchen was sat on the table, teeming with bubbling cheese and beckoning with an enticing aroma. No taste test was required. It was clear this would be no sacrifice. A tomatoey richness enhanced with Italian spices offered enough authentic flavor to give credence to the origin of the dish, while layers of noodles and cheesy goodness satisfied the casserole-loving Midwesterner in me.
Just like nearly everything else she created, Karen’s lasagna was simply perfect.
While the food served secured a starring role, the rest of the event was spot on as well. I have such great memories of the easy conversation and the way Doug’s parents made me feel right at home. Karen was a hostess who made it all look so effortless. Even so, a guest at her table couldn’t help but notice special touches. From the napkins and bread basket linens she’d sewn, to the well-planned menu and dessert, there was no such thing as a “regular” meal.
Karen knew serving a meal wasn’t just about what you served. It was who you served -- and how you served them. With compassion. With warmth. With fellowship. With love.
This brings me back to that dish.
I walked in my kitchen after work a couple of weeks ago to find it in my own oven, cheese bubbling, the rich aroma of basil and oregano wafting through the air. Empty cans of tomato sauce and a well-worn, handwritten recipe card sat on the counter.
“I wanted to make you all supper,” said my oldest daughter, who had learned that day she had passed her nursing board exam. “As a way to thank you for all you’ve done to support me through this.”
I offered to put the finishing touches on the bread and salad, but she politely refused.
“I want to serve all of you tonight,” she explained.
And when that white dish arrived at our dining room table that had been set with the small details that echoed her grandmother’s, it was my heart -- not stomach -- that was filled.
While I was converted to an enthusiastic lasagna fan at my mother-in-law’s table all those years ago, I’ve always felt no meal when that particular recipe was served would ever match the first time I enjoyed her signature main course.
And no meal ever has.
But now, there’s a close second.
Other contributions by Anne Maxwell include: