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Mom’s Gone, But Recipe Box Brings Questions

The recipe boxes. Credit: Deborah Madison

The recipe boxes. Credit: Deborah Madison

Among the items I brought home with me after my mother’s death were her two recipe files. One was lodged in a long, metal box that I suspect once held part of the town’s library card catalog.  The other was a delicate wooden box that could be hung on a wall.

I was surprised she had squirreled away so many recipes, any recipes for that matter, for she never seemed that interested in cooking, aside from making sweets. She owned only an old edition of “The Joy of Cooking” plus the cookbooks I had written. My mother’s recipe collection was a mishmash of handwritten recipes and a great deal more torn from magazines, mainly Sunset and Gourmet and occasionally Good Housekeeping, which is kind of ironic because my mother, by her own admission, was hardly a good housekeeper.

I’ve mused before about the mystery of handwriting and how it has the power to touch us in a way an email, without its texture and quirks, can’t. But these folded bits of printed paper and yellowed cards, most of them typewritten, introduced me to my mother in a new way, helping me see her as a person I hadn’t known.

Recipe box about the why, not just the how

I had to wonder, why these recipes? And did she ever make them? She didn’t, at least that I know of. Her own handwritten categories weren’t necessarily related to the contents. Filed under “meat,” for example, were recipes for pomegranate jelly, orange jellies, orange breads, cakes, pickles, guava preserves and even a guava chiffon pie — none of them meat and none of them foods we ate. Not once.

The many recipes based on oranges were labor-intensive undertakings that involved taking apart then reassembling the fruit, something my mother would not have had the patience to do. Maybe she wished she had been that kind of person, a woman who would spend hours in the kitchen instead of at her typewriter writing novels or at her easel painting. (I suspect the reason that there were so many orange recipes was because in the 1950s my parents moved from the East to California, where we had orange trees, which must have seemed miraculous.)

But where were the meat recipes? Elsewhere. Here and there. My mother was not a fan of meat and was mostly vegetarian, but perhaps meat recipes were dutifully collected for my Midwestern carnivore father. There was a surprising recipe for roasted lamb neck. That my mother, a person so sensitive to the lives of other beings, would even have such a recipe was shocking. I’m sure we never ate such a thing. The recipe instructs, “Have your meat man cut each neck into 2 or 3 slices about 1¼ inches thick.” Now that butchery is emerging again, perhaps it’s not impossible to “ask your ‘meat man,’ ” or “your meat woman” for that favor.

Meat dishes we did eat were mostly in her “Armenian” file, which also contained Indian recipes — dolmas, shashlik, kebabs a miscellany of curries. There’s a recipe for koefte from the 1950s, long before Paula Wolfert introduced us to more than 50 kinds. One card scrawled instructions for pickled tongue with raisins. Again, I doubt my mother would have made the tongue. We did eat tongue, but my father was the one who cooked it.

A relentless diet

There were menus for dieting that would practically demolish one’s life force, menus that started each day with half a grapefruit and a cup of coffee. Ravenous by 10? Then you might want a cup of very lean vegetable broth. (“Guaranteed to help you lose weight, even if you have to eat out,” the introduction promised.)

Simple vegetable dishes were filed with early weight-watcher recipes. I don’t recall that my mother was ever fat, but she must have thought she was. When her doctor cautioned her, in her 90s, that she was awfully thin, her reply was, “Why thank you!” The diet desserts she collected were based on egg whites, gelatin and, of course, oranges. Although Jell-O was our standard dessert, perhaps she really did intend to make that Frozen Fruit Cake and the Shoo-Fly Pie that appears twice in her collection. A great many of my mother’s recipes were for desserts, some elaborate, some of the more quick-and-easy type, and not all of them diet-related. There was her recipe for cottage cheese pie, a dessert we did eat, which my father meanly scoffed at, saying, “So this is what the rich eat?” A cheesecake would have been prohibitively costly, but there was a recipe for that, too. Maybe one day she was able to make it. And eat it. I hope so.

A reflection of progress

My mother’s recipes also reveal something about how times have changed. “Betty’s Armenian Casserole,” torn from a magazine, calls for processed white rice, a  No. 2 can of tomatoes, Burgundy wine and garlic salt. Teaspoon is abbreviated “teasp.” Many recipes from the 1950s and ’60s call for garlic salt, which made me cringe every time I saw it listed, until I remembered that when I spent summers in the Adirondacks in the 1970s, garlic still came packed two heads to a box, and they were always moldy and unusable. So the garlic salt made sense, at least until really great garlic started to appear in farmers markets starting in the 1970s.

There’s a kind of generalization in many of the recipes — Eurasian Eggplant, Egyptian Stew, Victory Garden Meal, curry — that’s hard to imagine today, with so many knowledgeable cooks writing in great detail about food cultures.

My mother may not have cooked most of these recipes, but she was reading about food and encountering, at least in print, dishes that suggested flavors new and exciting to a transplanted New Englander. A frugal New Englander, I might add, which is one reason why, I suspect, these clippings and cards played a greater role in my mother’s imagination than reality. Maybe it was the taste of adventure she sought, and that was enough.

Main photo: The recipe boxes. Credit: Deborah Madison

Zester Daily contributor Deborah Madison is the author of many books on food and cooking, including "The Greens Cookbook" and "Local Flavors: Cooking and Eating From America's Farmers Markets." Her latest book, "Vegetable Literacy," is a 2014 James Beard Award winner.

  • Martha Rose Shulman 4·18·14

    Lovely piece, Deborah,

    I too brought home a recipe file after cleaning my mother’s apartment after her death in late January. It was labeled “Recipes for Travel” and it was a manila file filled with clips, mainly from the New YOrk Times and the LA Times. I think she must have taken it with her for her stays in Paris when I lived there, and New York. Mainly, it was chicken recipes, and some game. She sure must have eaten a lot of chicken!

  • Lori Narlock 4·22·14

    I loved this post. I have an “heirloom” recipe box that is filled with recipes my mother wrote when she was a young bride and mother and recipes my father’s mother dictated to me later. It is a crazy collection that inspires so much nostalgia that I began to collect vintage recipe boxes whenever I find them at estate sales. The recipes inside always tell a story about the person who filled the box and the time that they did.

  • Ethne Clarke 4·22·14

    Such an evocative story. My Mum was a British war bride, born in Ireland and transplanted to Milwaukee. Raisin sauce and scragg end (neck) of lamb were her “fancy” dishes, but my Dad nixed tongue. To help her become an American cook, her mother-in-law (German) gave her the Settlement Cookbook and taught how butter and cream improved most things. I cook from he recipes and the Settlement. And I have my own ragged and strangely organized recipe collection. Who doesn’t? And someday I will try them out.they all sound so good!

  • Sheri Woods 4·22·14

    This is very timely for me as well – I’ve had my Mother’s recipes for a few years now, but she only passed away last November. There are only a handful and ones that meant the most to her she already had memorized by heart, but seeing them in her handwriting brings her back to life in my mind again. She had one recipe for her mother’s baking powder biscuits on 3 different cards. It was one to never forget. Thank you for sharing your story.

  • Brian 4·22·14

    I loved reading this article. It reminds me so much of my mom, and I seem to be following in her footsteps. My mom has tons of recipes, and is collecting them still, the packrat she is,and she sends a lot to me. I know she (and I) do collect them with the thought “Oh, this looks good. I’ll have to make that one day”. And for the most part we never do. That is why I never buy cookbooks any more; I have plenty, plus the recipes my mom sends me and the ones I find online, and I only ever try a few of them. I had to laugh at the library card reference! That too reminds me of my mom and her recipe boxes. She even has had to fill plastic ziplocs to house the new ones she’s collected!

  • katherine leiner 4·22·14

    Deborah, I just loved this piece. Your note about handwriting is so true…I have my mother’s little black book of recipes and each time I look at it (I know all her recipes, or most of them by heart) I almost weep. I remember her in the kitchen, in the wonderful blue linen apron from Switzerland that I now own…trying to get her 3 course dinner ready before my father –who actually couldn’t give a damn about good food, got home. She had written dates and people next to each recipe so that she wouldn’t fix the same meal for a friend when they ate over again. So sweet, that time. No frozen food in my mother’s house. Thanks for making me remember, and thanks for all your great books and ideas.

  • Janell Pekkain 4·22·14

    Like the other readers who commented, I, too was drawn in to your mother’s story and your reflection of her through her recipe boxes. My mother also holds on to the yellowed recipe cards handwritten by her mother and friends and herself waiting for her kids to inherit them some day. My little story though is of her recently helping me out in my new olive oil shop in San Francisco by baking some of her pound cakes from the ’60s – you know the ones with sherry wine and lemon poppyseed? The only requirement was that she’d substitute the butter (and shortening) for olive oil that I’d supply of course. Her pound cakes were a huge hit at our opening and requested at future events. Not until a year later did my mom confess that she didn’t use the olive oil for her sweet moist cakes and in defiance (I suppose to get me back for my teenage years) stayed true to Crisco! Oh my… I’m in charge of the olive oil cakes now. It’s a new generation 😉 Thanks for helping me to reflect on my mom and her recipes…and so much more.

  • Virginie 4·23·14

    We have so many customers who make cookbooks of their family’s recipe cards by scanning the cards and adding photos and anecdotes! That way they get to preserve that handwriting that means so much to them!

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