"The only real stumbling block is the fear of failure. In cooking, you have got to have a what-the-hell attitude." ~ Julia Child

The Recipes We Keep…

by Julie on May 8, 2012

in Chew on This

Although my mom really didn’t cook, she did have a little recipe box, about six inches long and three inches wide; blue with flowers, I think, and a cover that hinged back and over when it opened. Inside were a number of index cards, some stained with use but many not. It occupied an unloved corner of counter back by the refrigerator, until the day it disappeared into a drawer, never to be seen again.

All the moms had them, so I figured it was just standard kitchen gear, even though I’d never seen ours being consulted. I hadn’t thought of a recipe box at all in years until this afternoon, when Eva pulled hers out.

Eva and I go way back. We met at our first job out of college and bonded over our mutual disorganization. This afternoon she had promised to make an apple cake for her son’s school and was digging through her recipe box, stuffed with every manner of paper, each one with a recipe scribbled on it. Index cards and receipts, scrap paper, paper torn from magazines. No attempt at order or classification. I wasn’t holding my breath.

“You’re worse than me,” I said. “And that’s saying something.”

This is why we're such good friends...

I got to thinking about the recipes we keep. They say that with the ever-growing popularity of the i-Pad, which is easy to set up in the kitchen while you call up recipes from the internets, cookbooks and the scrawled recipe on paper will be going the way of the rotary phone. I don’t agree.

For one thing, even when they’re much cheaper and as ubiquitous as cell phones, not everyone will opt for an i-Pad. Secondly, there is a lot to be said for the recipe written out on paper. People have a deep love of ephemera that may take another generation or two to breed out of us. And nobody wants to ruin said i-Pad with buttery fingerprints and spilled tomato sauce.

This is what an old, much loved recipe looks like

I just print recipes I get from the internet out anyway, and tape them on the cupboard in front of  me. They still get stained. But I wonder in what cold, technical world people making food for other people would come to prefer pixels on a screen to words your mom or a friend once wrote on the back of a notecard.  One way is information.  The other is community and tradition.

That’s how I think of it, anyway, when I open an old cookbook and a recipe for tamale pie written by my late stepmother 35 years ago falls out. I can hardly read her scrawl, but that’s the point; it makes me smile and think of her, and all the love she gave us through her meals.

Eva pulls out a particular recipe. I can hardly read it, either, but it was only a few lines: Saute an onion, brown ground beef, throw in a package of Lipton onion soup mix, add lots of cut tomatoes, simmer. Eat over rice.

So simple and so good. "We ate this all the time. The tomatoes make it great."

Here’s another one

"This one's like pudding! Damn it's so good!"

Every recipe we keep is a memory as much as any photo. Why did we ask for this recipe? Who gave it to us? Why did we clip it out of this magazine? Remember when this newspaper even had a food section? I have faxes sent to me by a friend in Italy, back when the Drama Teen was a baby, detailing some of her favorite recipes. They are faded and curled and of course stained all over…but I pull them out of my stack still and recall the circumstances.  It helps tie the passing years together.

A recipe or a memory?

Eva eventually found the apple cake recipe. It’s really easy, she promises, and she’ll write the recipe down for me before I go. I wrote down her mom’s recipe too, since that also sounds pretty tasty … although neither one of us like the idea of the Lipton onion soup mix.

I’m starting to wonder if Mom still has that little recipe box of hers. Maybe I’ll ask. Yes, I definitely will ask.


Photo credit: Of course Etsy has what I think is the actual recipe box we had at my house in the ’60s and ’70s. Thanks Etsy!

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