Good food is worth a thousand words — sometimes more. In My Family Recipe, a writer shares the story of a single dish that's meaningful to them and their loved ones.
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The first time my grandmother asked me to help her make a batch of potato chip cookies, I thought she was nuts. At 10 years old, I had only ever eaten chips straight out of the bag, as a snack. "Potato chips in cookies?" I asked. "But . . . aren't cookies meant to be sweet?"
She cracked a high-pitch laugh and handed me a 1-gallon Ziploc bag and a family-size bag of Lay's potato chips. "Here, crush them up real good," she said. "It's fun!"
This was just months after my parents had announced they were divorcing. We had been living in the Cayman Islands for the past two years, where my dad was overseeing a project building hurricane-proof substations. At first, our family of four enjoyed our weekend routines filled with beach days, snorkeling, and scuba diving, but eventually, the cracks in my parents' marriage began to show. And while our aunts and uncles, cousins and grandparents periodically flew down to visit, things became harder with the absence of our support network of family.
When my mom and dad split up, it meant we would need to return home to the States, though it wasn't clear where we'd ultimately end up. My little sister and I went on to spend that summer with our grandparents at their home in Pennsylvania while our mom worked on resettling our family. As she commuted two hours each way to her new job as a risk analyst for an electrical company in New Jersey, our Mom-Mom filled our days with activities, many of which involved cooking.
Mom-Mom was a quirky, loud woman who loved to tell stories and entertain, and whose days revolved around feeding the ones she loved most. She was always cooking, and always involved us grandkids in the process — from fetching fresh ingredients from the farmers market down the street to dicing vegetables, stirring, and flipping food on her electric cooktop. It had a vent that rose up out of the countertop like a little elevator, and we'd constantly hit the button to move it up and down, sometimes even letting our Beanie Babies ride on top of it. That silly game made cooking in her kitchen even more fun.
What I didn't realize then was that the seeds that would one day blossom into my future career as a food writer were being planted in that kitchen. Although my mom cooked at home, she rotated through the same meals much of the time, making repeat versions of eggplant parm, lasagna, shepherd's pie, meatloaf, and chicken enchiladas. As a mom who worked full-time, she mostly cooked by herself in order to get dinner on the table quickly. At Mom-Mom's, however, we seemed to have all the time in the world. In her kitchen, I learned how to dice an onion, use a meat thermometer, and chop up ingredients using a food processor. She wasn't afraid to let us make a mess of her countertops — or ourselves.
Occasionally, Mom-Mom's recipes were too eccentric for our tastes. There were some questionable casseroles and strange Jell-O salads that she first acquired knowledge of as a Navy wife in the 1960s. But there were also plenty of recipes we'd ask her to make again and again, like persimmon bread, pierogi, and pumpkin pie.
So, when she pulled out that index card with the potato chip cookie recipe she'd typed up herself on her typewriter, I thought it was just another kooky Mom-Mom creation. Eager to please her, I did as she asked and grabbed the Ziploc full of chips and got to work crushing them between my small hands. Beside us, my sister Lindsay steered the hand mixer over softened sticks of butter and sugar, to which I added a big heap of the hand-crushed Lay's potato chips.
An hour later, the potato chip cookies emerged from the oven. They looked a little like lumpy sugar cookies, but without any of the icing or sprinkles we were used to decorating them with. And they smelled a lot different from the chocolate chip cookies that were my favorite. The potato chip cookies filled the kitchen with vanilla and nutty scents. Once they cooled, I took my first bite, still quite skeptical of the flavor combination. A little bit sweet, a little bit savory, with crunchy bits of potato chips in each fluffy bite of cookie, they were so much better than I had imagined they'd be. The three of us devoured the salty, sugary rounds.
After that, potato chip cookies became our go-to recipe anytime a classroom potluck required us to bring something to school — and they never failed to generate a discussion. I made them for my college roommates, who questioned the concept of potato chip cookies just as I had doubted Mom-Mom a decade earlier. "Just try one," I pleaded. "I swear they're better than they sound." They each tried a cookie, and then another, and by the end of the evening they were all gone. I found out later that Mom-Mom used to make potato chip cookies and mail them to my aunts and uncles while they were at college, where their friends had similar reactions.
I know Mom-Mom didn't create the recipe for potato chip cookies. Surely, she clipped it out of the newspaper, as she did so many other recipes, or copied it off the back of a bag of Lay's potato chips at some point. But it was so uniquely offbeat, much like her, that they'll forever be linked in my mind.
Last year, I got to taste potato chip cookies again for the first time in years. It was late April 2020, still the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, when we were all so desperate for comfort. A week earlier, Mom-Mom had died from natural causes in the assisted living center where she lived. Per the state's social distancing guidelines, only 10 family members were allowed to attend her funeral.
On the evening before Mom-Mom's funeral service, my sister and I made the pilgrimage to her hometown, where our aunt and cousin still live. We gathered as safely as possible, hesitant to give each other the hugs we all craved. Lindsay had driven 500 miles with all the pantry ingredients needed to make Mom-Mom's famous potato chip cookies: all-purpose flour, sugar, vanilla extract, and, of course, plain potato chips. We took an egg and sticks of butter from our cousin's fridge to complete the ingredient list.
As we shared our favorite stories of our beloved grandmother seated in our cousin's kitchen, Lindsay and I got to work making the cookies just as we did dozens of summers ago — me crushing the chips, her mixing the cookie dough — and the grieving process began. It was a strange time to be mourning a personal loss during a time of such widespread devastation, but baking, and then eating, those quirky cookies helped bring some sense of comfort and normalcy.
A month later, when we gathered again to go through Mom-Mom's lifetime of belongings before putting her home up for sale, we found her collection of recipes printed and typed on index cards. I flipped through them, looking for old hits that I might like to re-create myself. That's when I found the well-worn card with the potato chip cookies recipe, the very card Mom-Mom had referenced again and again as she made the cookies for generations of family members. I decided to keep it.
That index card is now framed and hangs in my kitchen above the area where I prep and cook meals. It serves as a reminder to take risks with uncharted ingredient combinations, and to always reward myself with cookies when needed. Above all, it's a marker of the greatest gift Mom-Mom gave me: a love for food and feeding the ones I love most.
Recipe: Mom-Mom's Potato Chip Cookies
Prep time: 1 hour 30 minutes
Cook time: 15 minutes
Makes: about 25 cookies
- 2 cups potato chips (preferably Lay's Classic)
- 2 sticks unsalted butter, softened
- 1 cup granulated sugar
- 1 egg yolk
- 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- Add the potato chips to a Ziploc bag and crush with your hands until they're small and flaky. Set aside.
- Using either a stand mixer or a hand mixer, cream the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy. Add the egg yolk and vanilla and beat on medium speed until fully incorporated. Add the flour in small amounts to the mixture, blending well. Add 1 cup of crushed potato chips and gently mix until incorporated into cookie dough. Cover and let the dough chill for 1 hour in the refrigerator.
- Heat the oven to 350°F. Line 2 cookie sheets with parchment paper; do not add oil or grease. Form the dough into 1-inch balls and place on the ungreased sheets. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, until the cookies begin to get golden around the edges. They will look light in color and still be soft when you remove them from the oven, but they will get firmer as they cool.
- Let the cookies cool completely before enjoying. They can be stored in an airtight container for up to 5 days.