I still remember the first time I met her, emerging from the shadow of her garage to meet us at the car. Her eyes were the same piercing blue as his; or rather, I suppose, his, hers. I think I told her so right then.

I don’t know if he and I were in love yet but we were headed in that direction; he brought me home to meet his parents, after all. Obviously, something was simmering.

Three decades are sandwiched between then and now but I can still recall two things about that weekend: initial introductions and Sunday lunch.

A college sophomore subsisting on starchy dining hall fare, I had come to deeply appreciate home cooking. It was a thing a kid takes for granted if they’re fortunate enough to have a family that gathers for dinner more often than not (I was one of the lucky ones). Sarah’s table was beautiful, set with Haviland china, sterling, and crystal. Platters and bowls full of comfort covered every square inch. Everything looked – and smelled – delicious. It wouldn’t take long to find out every dish delivered what it promised.

Festive Table

I wasn’t shy about helping myself to seconds, and Sarah declared how glad she was for her son to bring home a girl who would eat. I was a little embarrassed at her observation, but I took it as the sincere compliment she intended.

That was the first of dozens (hundreds?) of  meals I’d enjoy around my in-law’s table. Sarah’s recipes account for a substantial portion of my own culinary arsenal. Her fried chicken is magical, her sour cream pound cake might well be the best in the world, and Thanksgiving isn’t the same without her dressing. Her hand-pressed butter mints melt in your mouth. 

Sarah’s life has preached hospitality without her ever needing to say a word; she’s a There you are! person from the moment you step through her door. Around her table, there’s always room for one more. Her whole life has been an offering poured out in service to others, often through her oven. 

She has always understood that something special happens when family and friends gather ’round a table. Frequently using her china taught me not to wait to use my own.

Sarah recognized that extraordinary moments are found within our ordinary days. 

With Thanksgiving next week and Christmas just around the corner, I’m acutely aware how life has changed. As well as I can remember that first meal prepared by the loving hands of my mother-in-law, I cannot remember the last. Though she is still here in body, dementia is whittling away her mind; somewhere along the way she stopped cooking. It hasn’t been an overnight thing, and since we’ve all been bringing dishes to relieve the sole burden on her, it wasn’t obvious when she stopped cooking altogether. 

Despite failing health, Sarah continued to create an atmosphere of warm welcome by giving of herself however she could, love poured out without condition. 

I visited my in-laws recently. While out running errands for them, I ended up at the grocery story, a woman on a mission. I returned to their house and started cooking like my life depended on it. Since we live several hours apart, I can’t just pop over anytime, and I wanted my all-too-brief visit to be helpful. In only a few hours I was able to prepare dinner for them that night, and make batches of Noni’s Chicken Stew and chili for them to have and/or freeze. 

After I told Sarah good-bye, my father-in-law and I had this moment, the kind where the sadness seeps through the cracks of broken hearts. He thanked me as if I had done something extraordinary, and only then did it hit me that half of what I cooked had been learned at the side of his wife. 

I doubt she ever would have imagined that all those years of investing in my life would yield such a beautiful return.

***

One of my favorite dishes of Sarah’s is her squash casserole. She made it that first Sunday dinner, and it was then I learned I do, indeed, love squash. Because I’ll often forego dessert in order to have a third helping of squash, I thought it would be a great recipe to share here at Grace Table. Do tell me about your favorite side dishes during the holidays! If you have a link, include it in comments, or if you don’t have a blog or Facebook share, just jot it down here. I’ll let you know if I try your recipe, and you do the same, deal?

Squash Casserole

Sarah’s Squash Casserole

 

  • 6 yellow crook-necked squash, washed and sliced (about 4 cups)
  • 1 onion, diced
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 1 cup grated cheddar cheese
  • ½ cup milk
  • Crushed Ritz Crackers (enough to cover top of casserole)
  • 1 Tablespoon butter

Preheat oven to 400°F.

Place sliced squash and onion in pot, sprinkle with salt and add just enough water to cover. Bring to a boil over medium heat and then simmer over medium until tender, stirring occasionally, about 20 minutes. Drain. 

Whisk together egg and milk. Layer half of the squash in greased casserole; sprinkle with half the cheese and pour ½ of the egg/milk mixture over it. Add remaining squash, cover in remaining cheese, and pour remainder of milk mixture evenly over top. 

Cover top of casserole with crushed Ritz Crackers; cut up pat of butter and distribute evenly across top. Bake uncovered in preheated 400°F oven, about 30-40 minutes (until crackers are browned and casserole is bubbly).

Enjoy! 

 

Robin Dance / Posts / Blog
Southern as sugar-shocked tea and in a scandalous affair with her college sweetheart, Robin is mom to two in college with the third almost there. She believes the kitchen table is a sacred alter, first classroom, and safe refuge, where the currency is spoken in love and good food. She hates "cooking close" and shoe shopping (gasp!), loves snail mail and surcies, and finds holy communion where sand meets surf. She's also rumored to make the best apple pie in the world. In addition to writing at robindance.me, you'll find her at The Art of Simple, {in}courage and Deeper Story.
  • Katrina

    That brought tears to my eyes. Indeed, a beautiful return on her investment of time and love.

    November 16th, 2016 9:28
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    • Robin Dance
      http://robindance.me

      Thank you, Katrina. Love wrote this one 🙂

      November 16th, 2016 13:49
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  • Mary
    Mary
    http://www.marybonner.net

    Oh sweet friend…I can hear your voice ask read these words. This brought tears to my eyes and goosebumps to my arms. And that casserole….that sounds delicious!

    One of my favorite side dishes is a broccoli casserole I got from my mother-in-law.

    2 (12 oz) boxes frozen chopped broccoli
    1/4 c milk
    1/4 c mayo
    1 egg
    1 can cream of mushroom soup
    1 tablespoon horseradish – don’t omit this!
    12 oz shredded cheddar cheese

    Cook broccoli according to package directions, drain and set aside.

    Combine all other ingredients. Stir in broccoli. Pour into greased casserole dish and bake at 375 degrees F for 45 minutes.

    The top should brown and bubbly,

    The original recipe called to top the casserole with 1 cup melted butter mixed with 1 sleeve of Ritz crackers, I’ve long since omitted that…but maybe I should add it back this year! Life is short.

    November 16th, 2016 9:51
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    • Robin Dance
      http://robindance.me

      Mary!! First, thank you so much for sharing my post on Facebook and Twitter–I’m SO grateful for shares for a piece that’s so personal to me.

      Second, I make this same recipe EXCEPT without adding the horseradish. I can imagine how that adds the perfect *kick* to set it apart. Thank you for taking time to share this.

      November 16th, 2016 13:50
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  • Corena Hall

    My favorite 2 dishes are ode to my own mom and my mom by marriage. My mothers rice pilaf laden with currants and pine nuts, peas and chopped up sweet red pepper. Fragrant long grained basmati rice flavored with a few strands of saffron and cardamom, cloves, anise and a hint of nutmeg, And fresh cilantro, mild Italian sausage, pink shrimp and sweet lobster tail. ( I am from India and no I don’t make or eat pungent, but oh yes I flavor with spices); I have a Portuguese grandfather.
    An ode to my mom by marriage and her Irish heritage is her chicken cooked low and slow on her stove with plenty of stout vegetables and fresh herbs. Served with her creamy made from scratch mashed potatoes.

    November 16th, 2016 10:06
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    • Robin Dance
      http://robindance.me

      Corena, wow…SO much flavor in that first dish; I’d love to taste it at *your* table. And your second dish is good ol’ comfort food. Mmmmm….I can almost smell it. 🙂

      November 16th, 2016 13:52
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  • Lynn D. Morrissey

    Robin, this is so lovely (and beautifully written!) about a truly lovely woman. When you said that there was always room at your mother-in-love’s table for one more, I was reminded of my own mother-in-love and how, even though she had nine children and the family didn’t have much money, she knew how to cut chicken in a rather odd way to make it stretch far, and if you happened to show up at dinner, she found a way to squeeze you in at the table and to make that chicken stretch even further. My own mother is a marvelous cook, and has gradually stopped cooking, just like Sarah has. I will admit, that I am not the dutiful daughter who cooks for her in the way that you have so generously done for Sarah. My husband does the honors around here mostly (thankfully!) So what you are giving her is a real gift. But I can also read between your lines and know that what you are really doing is showering her with your love–deep love–in return for all the generous love she has bestowed upon you. She sounds like such a gift. You are very fortunate. Thank you for paying such poignant tribute to her here. It feels almost irreverent now just to include a recipe after your sacred writing… but you asked 🙂 , and the more I think about it, let me share it in honor of Sarah, because it’s my go-to comfort-food recipe. Sarah sounds like a true comforter. I also read here that you are a Southern gal, and this is a Sourtherner’s kind of comfort food. I hope that you enjoy it. Happy Thanksgiving!

    Fluffy Spoon Bread

    A light soufflé-type bread that is spooned onto the plate and eaten with a fork.

    Ingredients
    1 ½ cups boiling water
    1 cup cornmeal
    1 tablespoon butter, softened
    3 eggs, separated
    1 cup buttermilk
    1 teaspoon salt
    1 teaspoon sugar
    1 teaspoon baking powder
    1/4 teaspoon baking soda

    Heat oven to 375 degrees. Grease 2-quart casserole. In large bowl, stir boiling water into cornmeal; to prevent lumping, continue stirring until mixture is cool. Blend in butter and egg yolks. Stir in buttermilk, salt, sugar, baking power, and baking soda.

    Beat egg whites just until soft peaks form; fold into batter. Pour into greased casserole. Bake 45 to 50 minutes. Serve hot with butter.

    8 to 10 servings.

    November 16th, 2016 10:15
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    • Robin Dance
      http://robindance.me

      Oh…Lynn…I’m so glad you took time to encourage me–you filled my tank with your kind, generous words. You heard exactly what I hoped to communicate, so thank you for singing back to me a version of the song I offered.

      And your recipe–SO different from anything I’ve ever tried! And yet YUMMY sounding, enough to pique my curiosity to try my hand. We get into cooking ruts, so it’s always nice to have something recommended like this. 🙂

      November 16th, 2016 13:55
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  • Wendy
    http://wendykessler.com

    Thank you for this beautiful post. As someone who expresses love to my family and numerous young adults in our community through cooking and sharing meals, I feel deeply blessed by your words.

    One of my favorite fall side dishes comes from the November 2009 issue of Rachael Ray’s magazine. I’ve been making it every fall for 7 years, and I’m still amazed at the lovely flavor that is created by this simple recipe with only a few ingredients.

    Butternut Squash with Ginger & Cilantro

    4 pounds butternut squash, peeled and cut into 3/4-inch cubes (about 10 cups)
    1/4 cup vegetable oil
    2 teaspoons ground coriander
    Salt and pepper
    1/2 cup finely chopped crystallized ginger
    1/2 cup fresh cilantro leaves

    Preheat the oven to 450 degrees . In a large bowl, toss the squash with the oil, coriander, 1 1/2 teaspoons salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper. On each of 2 large baking sheets, arrange the squash in a single layer and bake, turning occasionally, until tender and golden-brown, about 30 minutes.

    Transfer the squash to a serving bowl and toss with the crystallized ginger and cilantro.

    It’s that simple, and it’s delicious. I often cheat and buy pre-cubed butternut squash, making this a great recipe for weeknight dinner as well as special occasions.

    November 16th, 2016 11:34
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    • Robin Dance
      http://robindance.me

      As much as I love squash, I cannot believe I’ve never cooked with butternut. This sounds like a great recipe to try–I like all the individual ingredients, so how could I not like this dish? 🙂

      Thank you, too, for taking time to share your words and your recipe; both mean so very much xo.

      November 16th, 2016 13:56
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  • Lorilee Mundfrom

    What a wonderful post. Dementia takes so much out of life but one thing it cannot take is the memories of the good times and good meals and good fellowship we have had with the one who is suffering. You are indeed blessed by those memories and those recipes! I also have many good memories of both my Mom and Mom-in-law providing delicious meals and I have the recipes to prove it! So glad to have them. God has been good to me through the years. Even though my Mom and Mom-in-law are both gone home to Jesus, I have the memories! So do my children.

    November 16th, 2016 14:10
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  • Leah Adams
    http://www.leahadams.org

    What a beautiful post! I love how you write of your MIL’s kitchen legacy. I daresay that Sarah poured more than food into your heart and life. What a beautiful picture of the mentoring that Paul encourages us all to partake in. Oh, by the way, my MIL makes a lovely squash casserole also.

    November 16th, 2016 15:43
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  • Elizabeth Marshall
    http://www.elizabethwmarshall.com

    Robin, miss you so. I can hear and feel the love here in your lovely post. Im so glad you brought your passion and enefgy yo the tabke today. And Yum!!! What beautiful telling of a tender relationship. Thanks for sharing a favorite recipe with me.

    November 16th, 2016 16:19
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  • Elizabeth
    http://www.justfollowingjesus.com

    What a gracious mother-in-law you have. My mother-in-law passed away with advanced Alzheimer’s three days ago so your post is very timely for me.

    November 16th, 2016 17:43
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  • Heather LeFebvre
    http://www.blackberryrambles.blogspot.com

    I loved this beautiful story of your mother-in-law and what she taught you and passed on to you and others.

    November 17th, 2016 12:35
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  • Bonnie Jean

    Robin, You always speak to the heart of the matter… whatever it may be. I know that when I read your posts, my heart will be touched, sometimes broken, but always in the way that it ought to be. Your story of Sarah is a beautiful story. I know that Jesus smiles on you each time you share the gifts she shared with you. I came from a family that was not a close one. Very few of my favorite dishes came from my biological family and my Thanksgiving’s have often been spent with my “created family”… friends, sometimes relatives but distant cousins, my husband and children, and “adopted” grandparents who are now alone from my Bible Study or Church. My father was working a lot to provide for us and my time with him was spent learning how to take care of our home… gardening, painting, repairing things (which has paid dividends of a different kind over the years). My father was also a great cook; but most of his cooking was done when I lived far away and I really ought to see if anyone has his recipe box (my brother had their home emptied professionally… after my father died and my mother almost burned the house down as she was experiencing the first stages of Alzheimer’s). The few meals I had with him were Saturday morning breakfasts and after leaving home, the occasional Beef Stew and Dumplings, Cranberry Roast Beef and a variety of side dishes. My mother did not really enjoy cooking other than desserts. Unfortunately for me, she loved baking pies and I never liked pie crusts ! But I learned from other friends, magazines and cookbooks along the way. I love Brussels Sprouts… but even those who claim to hate it have enjoyed this dish…I got it from the Nov./Dec. ’04 issue of Cottage Living Magazine (which I think is no longer published). And I have adjusted it a bit. Roasted Brussels Sprouts …Makes 10-12 Servings; 2 lbs. trimmed Brussels Sprouts (if you use fresh it tastes a lot better the second day re-heated)… We use frozen Brussels Sprouts more often than not and it tastes fine from day one as they have already been cooked once. Preheat oven to 425 degrees; cut the sprouts in half lengthwise and toss to coat evenly w/2 tbsp. melted butter, 2 tbsp. olive oil, 1/2 tsp. sea salt and 1/4 fresh ground black pepper. Bake 15 to 18 minutes at 425 or until they are tender. Stir once halfway through. Heat over low to medium heat (slower is best) 1 tbsp. butter and 1tbsp. oil; add 1/2 c. minced shallots (approx. 2 med.) and cook approx. 2 min.until translucent; add 3 tbsp. sherry vinegar; reduce to low heat and simmer 1 minute; Stir in slowly 1 tbsp. Dijon mustard and 3/4 c. Heavy or Whipping Cream. Slowly bring to a low boil. Lower heat and let simmer about 5 minutes until the sauce is thick and creamy. Drizzle over the Sprouts… best to do the sauce while the sprouts are roasting if you can. Let cool just a little. Great reheated as well. Very good for you even with the butter and cream. If you want to really go crazy … cook some real bacon and crumble a bit on top after you are done; but before you drizzle on the creamy mixture. Amount up to you ! I am going to try the casserole… do you use Vidalia onions or regular and what size ? Just wondering …

    November 20th, 2016 17:32
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