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Pandemic projects: Gathering at ‘The Big Table’: Pat McHugh tackles cookbook compilation of 350 recipes from 100 families

By Cindy Hval For The Spokesman-Review

Chances are wherever the extended McHugh family and friends are gathering today, they’ll be tucking into matriarch Barbara McHugh’s turkey dressing.

While the group may be smaller than usual, Barbara, 92, hasn’t retired from the kitchen.

“I’ll be making my dressing,” she said.

The reason so many other families will feast on her recipe is due to Barbara’s son Pat.

“For years my five daughters have talked about compiling and publishing a family cookbook, but it was Pat who decided to make it his project during this troublesome time,” said Barbara, smiling at her son. “Pat’s always been special.”

The result of his efforts? “The Big Table,” a cookbook featuring 350 recipes from 100 families.

Usually Pat McHugh’s summer is filled with family reunions, picnics and potlucks. COVID-19 put a stop to those much-anticipated activities.

So, Pat channeled his energy into creating a legacy cookbook, and in the process he brought his loved ones closer, even across the miles.

In the introduction to “The Big Table,” he wrote, “Producing this book seemed like a good opportunity to bring our family together in a hopeful and fun way; this has been such a trying time for the health of the human family worldwide.”

His first step was creating a contact list.

“My sister Monica helped me print up a list and we reached out to people asking them to send three or four of their best recipes,” he said.

The response was amazing, which didn’t surprise Pat’s sister, Megan McHugh.

“At family gatherings everyone has these wonderful dishes they bring and we’re always saying, ‘Can I have the recipe?’” she said. “We have so many good memories associated with food.”

After all, food provided a touchstone and connection for the large Irish family while growing up in central Idaho. With five daughters, two sons and a host of close family friends, Barbara’s meals were legendary.

“My kids didn’t bring home stray dogs and cats, they brought home stray kids,” she said.

Pat grinned.

“And there was always enough to eat,” he said.

In fact, downsizing proved problematic for Barbara when her kids began to leave the nest.

“I still can’t seem to make less than a wash tub full of spaghetti,” she said.

But she’s passed the fried chicken baton on to Megan. The dish is a must have at summer family gatherings. Alas, that recipe’s not included in the book.

“I don’t have a recipe,” Megan explained. “I just grew up watching Mom make it.”

Pat tried to include items families and friends are known for, including his own Tom and Jerry mix.

“It took me years to perfect,” he said.

His wife, Kass, laughed.

“He went through a lot of eggs,” she said.

Cookbook contributors range in age from Megan’s granddaughter, Lylah McHugh, 9, to Barbara McHugh, 92.

Pat said he started the project in March. He found a publisher and by July, 400 cookbooks had been printed and were ready to send to family and friends.

“I really enjoyed hearing from everybody,” he said. “We found this was a way to bring the family together.”

He’s quick to point out he had help along the way.

Kass, a retired English teacher, spent hours proofreading the recipes, and Pat’s sister, Molly, helped him choose the cover.

“We had a competition with family and friends to name the book, and my brother-in-law won,” he said.

“Pat was the heart and soul of the whole thing,” said Kass. “It’s made people so happy.”

Indeed, the sprawling clan can gather around a virtual table thanks to the recipes, notes and anecdotes included in “The Big Table.”

“Though we can’t have the big gatherings we usually do, we have the recipes and the memories from the wonderful times we shared,” Pat said.

— Cindy Hval can be reached at dchval@juno.com

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