An Inexplicable Nudge Led Her to a Long-Lost Family Recipe

After countless failed attempts at recreating her late mother-in-law’s apple crisp, this chef received some divine inspiration.

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- Posted on Sep 25, 2020

Apple crisp recipe

I sorted through some cookbooks on the kitchen counter. My husband, Steve, worked next to me in silence. We were going through his parents’ farmhouse near Rock Port, Missouri, trying to decide what to do with everything in it. We were overwhelmed by the 60 years of stuff that had accumulated.

I knew this undertaking was hard on Steve. He’d grown up in this house. His parents had built it themselves. After his mother, Velma, had passed away 20 years earlier, his dad, Lyle, had left everything untouched. He’d instead focused his energy on keeping the farm going. Now Lyle was in his late eighties and could no longer work. Lyle resisted leaving the farm, but it was clear his health was deteriorating. Steve and his brothers decided to move him into a nursing home.

The brothers knew that they were making the best choice, but it was tough for Steve to see his dad frail and diminished. As we emptied out his parents’ kitchen now, I knew Steve was thinking about all the good times the family had shared here and the good meals his mom had cooked.

Velma was the best mother-in-law you could ask for. When Steve and I got married, it was my second marriage and I had two young daughters. I could have so easily felt like an outsider. Not with Velma. She welcomed us warmly and treated my daughters and me like family right away. She and I had very different backgrounds. She was a born-and-raised farm girl. I’d grown up in the suburbs, the child of New Yorkers. But Velma was easy to bond with. And cooking had really brought the two of us together.

I had gone to the Culinary Institute of America and was the author of four cookbooks. Cooking was my passion. Velma was a skilled home cook who had expertly fed four hungry boys. Steve and his brothers still spoke fondly of their mother’s delicious comfort foods. Velma had shared recipes with me for a few of Steve’s favorites, but, sadly, she didn’t get a chance to show me all of them. Just four years after Steve and I got married, Velma died of melanoma.

As I stacked the cookbooks on the counter, I couldn’t help but think about the one dish I never could get right: Velma’s famous apple crisp. It was one of Steve’s all-time favorites, but it was also one that I didn’t have the recipe for. I’d searched through all his mother’s cookbooks but couldn’t find it anywhere. Perhaps she had committed it to memory and just never written it down.

Over the years, I’d tried to recreate the apple crisp, but I could never get it exactly like Velma’s. I tried different recipes, some with cranberries, some with walnuts, one with oatmeal streusel. Steve would take a bite and say, “It’s good, but it’s not Mom’s.”

It had become a kind of running joke between us. Still, I felt frustrated. I was an accomplished cook! How could I not get this apple crisp right? After years of trying, I’d finally given up.

I was making another stack of cookbooks when a kitchen drawer caught my eye. I’d never looked inside it before. Yet I felt drawn to it now. We still had so much work to do, but something was telling me to stop what I was doing and check out that drawer. I walked up to it. I opened it and found some old recipe cards scattered inside. I gathered them up and started thumbing through them.

You don’t have time for this right now, I reminded myself. Just set them aside for later.

As I moved to set them down, the pile of cards flipped to the center. I stared in disbelief. There, in Velma’s handwriting, was a card for apple crisp. I’d finally found her recipe! It had been hidden away in this drawer the whole time. But how had I known exactly where to look?

The next week, when things were quieter, I gave the dessert a shot. I’d never gotten it right before, but then again, I’d never had the recipe. Following the instructions step by step, I made a pan of apple crisp. I waited nervously as Steve took a bite. For the first time in weeks, his eyes lit up and a smile spread across his face. “This is it!” he said.

Though I can’t explain it, I’m grateful for the powerful nudge that guided me to the long-lost, long-coveted recipe. It allowed me to bring Steve some much needed comfort—a perfectly made slice of Velma’s apple crisp.

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