Writer and fifth-generation farmer, Latria Graham, shares the story of her favorite family recipe.
Southern Living Annual Recipes 1980s
Credit: Southern Living

My mother was a mediocre cook when my parents got married, and the first time she served my father tomatoes, he almost asked for a divorce. Daddy grew up on a tomato farm in South Carolina and couldn't stand to eat them. But everything changed when he tasted Mama's lasagna. The recipe came courtesy of Lou Harper from Edmonton, Kentucky—someone my parents had never met who lived hundreds of miles away. It ran on page 119 of the Southern Living 1982 Annual Recipes cookbook, which was a wedding gift from my Aunt Ann. The fusion of garlic and fat took the sting out of the tomatoes, and the layers of pasta and cheese smothered any resentment he had toward the ingredient. The flavor profile was unfamiliar, but the three types of cheese made it comforting, and he requested the dish every Christmas.

When we were old enough, my brother and I put in requests for lasagna, too, and soon one pan wasn't enough to feed the four of us. When we got a craving, we made our own lasagnas, but they never tasted like Mama's.

My father was a farmer like his father. My younger brother, Nicholas, and I spent much of our free time on family land at the foot of the Appalachians, tending to okra or caring for hogs. Mama worked as a postal carrier, but the rest of us could often be found on the farm or at the produce stand in Spartanburg, South Carolina, hauling collards, shelling beans, and cracking pecans so folks could make their signature pies. We were the ones who made Christmas dinner happen, so we always worked until the eleventh hour on Christmas Eve. We sold fresh sage when most places only stocked dry, and we canned our own chowchow so we could tell customers exactly what was in it. Duke's mayo was a staple at the store, just in case someone's absent-minded husband brought home something else. My mom was particular about her ingredients too. One Christmas Eve, I picked up ricotta instead of her requested cottage cheese. My protests about how they worked the same fell on deaf ears, so I trekked back to the market. Her message was clear: Don't mess with the original.

The proceeds from the stand helped us pay for college. I moved to New Hampshire. Nicholas went to New York. My parents had one rule: No matter where we traveled, our family had to be together in Spartanburg for Christmas. And that's what we did.

Until the time we couldn't—the year my dad died of cancer. I shut down the produce stand. Folks would have to get their ingredient fix somewhere else. The three of us stayed home, curtains drawn, our house dark. I sat in my childhood bedroom with a book, unable to read its contents. "Christmas just ain't Christmas without the one you love…" the lyrics drifted down the hallway and arrived just before the heady mix of onion, garlic, and Italian seasoning that comes from only one dish. I dashed to the kitchen, where Mama stood in her pajamas with old-school R & B holiday jams pouring out of her iPad. The Christmas lasagna is, by definition, just a casserole, but there's no way to account for the love baked into those layers of pasta.

After Daddy died, that cookbook's pages scattered across the kitchen floor every time she opened it. The spine was broken in several places and had come unglued. The pages we turned to most were the color of caramel. A bit of buttery dough from my favorite Almond Spritz Cookies had stained the pages tan in spots. This book, along with some photos, was all that was left of their marriage. I was determined to replace it.

Latria Graham and Her Mother
Credit: Image Courtesy of Latria Graham

Even though we have the recipe committed to memory, I fear it will age worse in my head than it did in the dilapidated cookbook. I get antsy about things that are not written down. Photocopies get misplaced. Handwritten cards suffer under water damage. I wanted something more permanent.

I scoured used-book shops searching for copies of the original. I picked up one in Greenville, South Carolina, and another at a library sale in Hoover, Alabama. The third came from a shop on Baxter Street in Athens, Georgia. Finally, I had three—one for Mama, Nicholas, and me.

I waited for the right time to give Mama her copy—Christmas Eve. She unwrapped it, gave me a hug, and put it right next to her old one. She has never opened it. She still uses her original cookbook, even though it crumbles at her touch. I don't blame her. After all, it's the one with a lifetime of Christmas memories.

Latria Graham is a writer and fifth-generation farmer based in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Read more of her work at latriagraham.com.