I opened the cookbook like a child encountering a treasure in a dusty attic.
It was worn -- fingerprints lovingly stained its frayed, delicate pages like an artist's soft brush. This once belonged to someone very special whose love for food transcended just preparing a meal -- through her cooking, she created love, family, friends -- lifelong bonds.
Page after page was filled with delectable treats, dancing like sugar-coated plums -- yet this was much more than a cookbook -- it represented a tiny, yet feisty, woman with bright, green eyes, infectious smile and Southern drawl that seemed to envelope everyone she encountered like a warm hug -- this was a woman that sadly, I never had the opportunity to meet -- my mother-in-law, Edna Hong.
I met her son, Dan, just months after she died; and despite the fact I never personally experienced the strong presence she was, I know we will always be tied in two ways: her love for her son, and her love of cooking.
Bringing the book to my nose, I inhaled deeply, and sensed a faint trace of her scent -- her being -- she still existed throughout the pages.
And although I wasn't able to experience her in life, it seemed her book of memories -- memories perfectly interlaced in sugars and spices representing hundreds of plump holiday turkeys and hams, summer salads, birthday cakes and cookies, and casual family meals where it was uncommon not to receive a knock on the door from an unexpected visitor who knew exactly when dinner was served -- brought me face to face with this incredible woman.
My memories of Edna are constructed solely through other people's eyes -- her parties were legendary, people drove miles to enjoy a home-cooked meal, good company, laughs and, of course, her sharp Southern wit.
In fact, her culinary chops were so regaled, it's hard for me to picture her anywhere but the kitchen -- casually, yet gracefully preparing food for a crowd while entertaining -- a cooking sensation who was a bit too rockabilly for the PBS crowd, but perfect for the Food Network.
She was, indeed, a culinary rock star before being a chef constituted a star on Hollywood Boulevard.
Food was family to Edna. And anyone who knew Edna was well aware that family was love and, of course, love was family -- a savory symbiotic pie. And how much more can you express your love for someone then to present her with a piping-hot piece of homemade apple pie?
That being said, I believe anyone can cook. I believe anyone can learn to love to cook. I am not a trained cook -- I did not attend a fancy culinary school, I still struggle with julienne cuts, and I make a delicious, but hideously ugly cake.
What I did do, however, is learn to read, and shortly after the tender age of 4, fell in love with the idea of cooking.
And although unlike mine, Edna's cakes were worthy of a cover shot on Southern Living, she shared my belief that anyone could cook -- and love it.
One of Edna's favorite responses to those who praised her kitchen savvy and bemoaned they could never, ever cook like her was (and I imagine her saying this in her honey-dripped, gorgeous Southern drawl): "Do you know how to read? Then you can cook."
Amen, Edna, amen.
So, I invite you to experience The Main Ingredient on a variety of different gastronomic planes.
Of course, simple, yet luscious recipes -- some my own, some from family and friends, some from local restaurants and, I hope, from you, the reader, stories celebrating my relationship with food (which comes second only to my relationship with Dan -- yeah, it's that important), and how food, family and friends make food that much more delicious.
This is what The Main Ingredient is all about. Yes, of course there is the tangible (and scrumptious!) stuff that makes a recipe work, but what it's really all about -- the main ingredient -- is love.
And nobody embodied this philosophy more than Edna. To me, Edna's cookbook -- dusted with family memories -- is my touchstone.
Here's to bringing back The Main Ingredient, and developing lifelong bonds -- cook what you love, love what you cook -- but always remember the main ingredient. Thanks for reading.
Theresa Hong writes about food for the Merced Sun-Star. E-mail her at email@example.com.