"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!

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Jayna May 8, 2012 at 8:36 pm

Love, love, love!


alice May 9, 2012 at 8:08 am

I completely agree about printouts. Most of my recipes are in printed paper form, either books or recipes from the internet that I keep in one binder. I have another photograph binder that I keep magazine clippings in. These recipes are usually covered with splatters or my own notes (adjustments, substitutions, ‘optional’) and I love them. The only handwritten recipes I have are my mom’s Chinese dishes. She never cooks from a recipe so if I want to ever reproduce her dishes I have to hover by her while she’s cooking and take rapid notes of what she’s doing. I also have two index cards from an ex-boyfriend’s mom, one for pizza dough and one for pancake batter. I still use both.


Julie May 9, 2012 at 8:29 am

I love that, Alice. And I love the rum shot of it all…an ex-boyfriend’s mom gives you two recipes and years later both are still in rotation. Thanks for this!


Bruce May 9, 2012 at 8:21 am

LOVE this piece. My mom had several boxes, binders, and other places where recipe cards, xeroxes, and scrawls ended up. I don’t think she actually made many of the dishes in question — they were more like a wish list, a collection of “someday, if I ever have the time…” possibilities.


Julie May 9, 2012 at 8:30 am

…and look what happened to you…:-) No fear in the kitchen. Do you have these recipes of hers?


Bonnie McCarthy May 11, 2012 at 4:38 pm

My mom had a box too! I love the recipes written down by friends in their own, distinctive hand writing. It’s not just the recipe they are sharing it’s the time too -it makes it so special! Long live the recipe box! xo


Karen May 12, 2012 at 10:16 am

My mom had a box and when she died no one wanted it – except me. So I took it home and went through it recipe by recipe. I already had most of them and mine were marked with the changes I preferred so most of her cards got thrown away but there were about a dozen or so that I had never managed to write down and really, sometime you just want your mom to cook for you! About three years ago my brother called and asked me if I had mom’s recipe for split pea soup. Yes as a matter of fact I do. Would I send him the card she wrote it on? No, I won’t that puppy is mine but I did give him the recipe.

My kids go through my box all the time and even though I’ve written most of them down for their own boxes they tell me it’s not the same. When I die they’ll be fighting over a box of stained, faded memories.


Julie May 12, 2012 at 3:48 pm

Karen – what a lovely story that is! Really touching. I’m LOVING that people are writing in their own tales of the recipe box…


bellneice May 16, 2012 at 9:09 am

I have my mom’s recipe boxes, my Aunt Alice’s recipe boxes, and my Aunt Peggy’s recipe boxes. 3X5 cards, scraps of paper, recipes from friends and relatives, things cut out of magazines and newspapers, with bits of news articles and adverts on the back of them. My mother had 8 recipes for pumpkin pie. I don’t ever recall her making a pumpkin pie.


Julie May 16, 2012 at 9:17 am

Right? But she must have thought she would at some point. And I betcha she could have told you why she had eight recipes for pumpkin pie.
You should find them and make one…


Dust Bunny May 16, 2012 at 3:15 pm

Oh, my! Tomatoes, hamburger, and rice, in roughly equal parts, has been one of our favorite meals for years. We used to eat it pretty plain–maybe with an onion cooked into the meat, and some chopped bell pepper–but lately we’ve started adding sausage-style seasonings (sage, fennel, etc.). I’ve begun running into more and more people who have their own versions of it.


Julie May 16, 2012 at 3:40 pm

Yeah it did sound pretty good (embarrassingly basic, but hey, no Martha’s around here…) In fact, it’s probably gonna be what’s for dinner tonight!


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