It was just a recipe for pecan pralines, a simple mixture of sugars, milk, vanilla, nuts and butter that by virtue of sweet alchemy combine to create a favorite treat from my childhood.
I was reading it in a 28-year-old homemade cookbook, “Family Traditions — Ferrell and Mathews Family Recipes.” A small pile of yellowed pages held together by a large black-and-silver metal clip.
I’m neither a Ferrell nor a Mathews. But Dave Mathews was a co-worker who I respected and liked and occasionally butted heads with but didn’t know well enough to call a close friend.
After his death a few months ago, as colleagues were cleaning out his desk, they found the cookbook, along with other personal items like a scrapbook chronicling major events in Dave’s life starting with his birth more than 60 years ago.
Dave and I were old enough to remember burning our hands on the wax that was used to adhere strips of news to broadsheet-sized copy boards before sending them off to be turned into a newspaper — back in the Jurassic period of journalism before the rise of desktop publishing and content management systems.
But other than coming up in the industry at roughly the same time and now working at the same place, we didn’t have much in common.
Still, I had been making the Ferrell and Mathews Family Pecan Pralines for years. I taught my daughter to make them, and she taught her daughter. They held a special place in decades worth of holidays and other occasions in my house.
Granted, we used our family recipe and not Dave’s, but they’re identical. There’s no elusive ingredient or magic touch to differentiate it from one you might find on a bag of pecans on any supermarket shelf. But Dave’s mother, Minnie, found it special enough to include in this collection of clearly beloved recipes, made unique solely by virtue of the hands that made them and the memories they created.
Reading it snapped the sticky-sweet smell of the confections and their odd grainy feel into sharp focus in my memory. I drifted back to a dinner when the pralines somehow wound up with bits of Easter basket “grass” in them, and the first time my daughter was allowed a sample and her eyes lit up like fireworks, and the party when I dropped the tray and the dogs scarfed up every crumb before I could stop laughing and grab a broom.
I looked over at Dave’s empty desk in the newsroom and teared up, wishing I could hug the crotchety bugger — not something I’d ever seen anyone dare do.
And I remembered the scrapbook, filled as it was with bits and pieces of Dave’s life, some of which were quite surprising in their tenderness. I remembered asking aloud why he would leave such things in his desk at work.
“He lived alone,” a co-worker said. “He wanted to make sure somebody would find them.”
Dave was a highly talented and celebrated newspaper man with a career that spanned decades. But I’ll remember him more for his family’s praline recipe and for his scrapbook than for his page design prowess. I’ll never make pralines again without thinking of Dave.
How alike we all are, really, underneath the trappings of where we work, what we wear, who we vote for, etc. Ultimately, we all want to be seen and heard. And loved. Dave trusted us, his work family, to appreciate the glimpse into his life that the things he left behind allowed and to ensure they got to his family, both of which we did.
The simple little recipe is here. If you make it, think of Dave and of me and of the countless threads that connect us all, somehow, in the rich tapestry of life —even if we can’t immediately see them.
Then mask up and maybe safely offer a plate of pralines to someone who needs to be heard and seen and loved this holiday season. A neighbor, a co-worker, a stranger. We all have scrapbooks just waiting to be shared.