SANTA ANA, Calif. — Ann Romney is a gracious woman.
Such is my first and lasting impression of Mitt Romney’s wife of 44 years and matriarch of a Romney clan that includes the couple’s five sons and more than 20 grandchildren.
When I arrived at a Mormon bookstore on a recent Thursday evening, the line of fans waiting to get Romney’s autograph on her new book, “The Romney Family Table: Sharing Home-Cooked Recipes and Favorite Traditions,” extended around the block.
For a couple of hours, Romney, 64, greeted each fan with a warm smile and eye contact, before signing her name to the front of the cookbook.
She posed for a few pictures, shook hands, and listened attentively to the brief comments or stories from her many admirers, most of them middle-age women who looked very much like Romney’s peers — mothers and grandmothers she might run into at church on Sunday or at the farmer’s market.
Several customers needed assistance from store clerks to carry multiple copies of the cookbook — a few had purchased a dozen each — to the long wooden table where she did the signings.
Romney and I agreed that food — the preparation, presentation, and sharing of meals — is one way we express our love for and extend grace to one another. “What I want to do with this book is to share ... that love, and to pass that along, and to invite people to the table as a safe place — a place of comfort,” she said.
“The Romney Family Table” is filled with comfort foods, authentic family favorites from the family the Romneys created together. Romney includes decidedly down-to-earth dishes such as her son Craig’s guacamole, “Cheesey Noodles,” and something called “Pistachio Pudding Salad” — a favorite of Mitt’s late father, who, she writes, “loved sugar” and “loved easy.”
Neither fancy nor ambitious, they are tasty and familiar, reminiscent, perhaps, of a lot more than just food.
“I remember my grandmother’s hands being on mine and helping me roll out dough,” Romney said. “I remember her making sugar cookies for me. I remember what they taste like and I remember how I felt, tasting her cookies, so comfortable and so loved. The food was there, but it was the feelings that I associate with all of those things.
“My grandmother and my mother, of course, she was in the kitchen all the time, always baking. I just knew I was adored,” Romney continued. “It wasn’t like words that were saying it. And it wasn’t even the food that was saying it. It was just all those feelings that come from being in the kitchen and having the smells and having the tastes — and it all just makes those associations.”
Perhaps her favorite recipe in the book is for “Welsh Skillet Cakes,” a recipe passed down from her Welsh grandmother, Annie Evans Davies.
“My granddaughters are learning how to make them,” she said. “Everybody knows that’s part of our heritage, and that it’s something that I do and we give out as presents.”
I gave Romney’s “Welsh Skillet Cakes” a go and the results were less than perfect. I’m sure it’s not the fault of the recipe. I’ve never met a skillet that I couldn’t scorch or a flapjack that I couldn’t turn into a piece of coal.
After several rounds of cakes, I did manage to cook a handful to golden perfection. Still, even the burnt and half-cooked batches tasted great — kind of like tiny dough pockets of Christmas.
Rather than a glorified “brag book” of American perfectionism, Romney’s cookbook feels more like an invitation to make traditions of our own.
That you didn’t have a Welsh grandmother teaching you how to bake, or a bubbe whispering her secret recipe for chicken soup in your ear, doesn’t mean you can’t give those experiences to your own child or to other children who wouldn’t have it if it weren’t for you taking the time to extend a hand of kindness and grace.
All proceeds from the book, which has been selling like hotcakes (pun intended — the recipe for the buttermilk pancakes a la Mitt on page 13 is a great one), are going to fund neurological research into multiple sclerosis, the condition Ann Romney was diagnosed with in 1998.
“This life is short and the conditions that we find ourselves in are for our own good. Sometimes they’re hard and we don’t like them, but it’s worth the struggle to go through it and to know that there is a better life, that there is eternal life,” Romney said. “These things are for our teaching and our understanding, to be more compassionate and understanding to one another.
“If we can understand the struggles of others, and the dignity of each individual soul, we can just try to reach out a little further,” she added.
“Despite the circumstances we find ourselves in, if you let your life shine for who you are, no matter how tired you are, whether it’s disease or whether it’s politics that knocks you to the ground — whatever it is that knocks you to the ground — you can stand up again and keep going.”
(Cathleen Falsani is the faith & values columnist for The Orange County Register.)
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