If you were born during the post-war baby boom years, you already know that mid-century, American cooking reached a kind of nadir when companies like Campbell’s Soup and Kraft took over our mothers’ kitchens. In their eagerness to fulfill the image of the modern housewife, women happily hopped aboard the Big Food train to mediocrity with dishes that were made with canned or dried soup, processed cheese, mayonnaise, Jell-O, soft drinks and even potato chips.
And yet, go through your mother’s recipe box and a flood of memories will start to soften your dismissive thoughts about the food we grew up with. Those boxes filled with index cards tell a story. Not quite a journal, a woman’s recipe collection is more like a scrapbook, each card a memory of a certain time, place or event in her life that spills over to incorporate her family as well.
Family recipes are a treasured part of our past and the actual cards on which they were written become valued artifacts. I know a woman who handles estate settlements for a large trust bank who recounted a story about a not insubstantial estate whose settlement was delayed because the family was locked in a bitter feud over who would get their mother’s recipe box. I’m guessing a few million dollars were being held up over a box of 3 x 5 cards.
It’s not so much about the recipes, but what they represent. Sloppy Joes or Chicken Casserole made with three kinds of Campbell’s soup are not likely to make an appearance on my family table, but yet those recipes cards written in my mother’s hand or typed up by one of her neighbors with the attribution at the top: “From the Kitchen of…” are still dear to me.
When my sister was in town a few years ago she started rummaging through my mom’s recipes in search of some in my grandmother’s handwriting. She went through desserts and found Mrs. Weikert’s “Quick Dessert”. The recipe meant nothing to us (9 graham crackers rolled fine, ¾ Cup white sugar, 1 teaspoon baking powder, salt, 3 unbeaten egg whites and ¼ Cup nut meats. Mix well and bake at 350° for 40 minutes. Serve with whipped cream), but looking at the yellowed index card with a small grease stain in the corner written in my grandmother’s hand was as powerful to us as gazing at a photo of her. There she was again, alive on the card, with Mrs. Weikert (her one-time neighbor) peeking over her shoulder.
That’s the thing about recipe cards—they are a link to the past and to every person who passed the recipe to a friend or family member along the way. It’s like playing six degrees of separation, building a family tree and engaging in a kind of crowd sourcing all rolled into one. It really is a pity that recipe cards are on their way out. There is so much humanity packed onto one 3 x 5 card that can never be replicated in the cloud.
The great New Yorker writer, A. J. Liebling in his excellent memoir about Paris, Between Meals, wrote:
“The Proust madeleine phenomenon is now as firmly established in folklore as Newton’s apple or Watt’s steam kettle. The man ate a tea biscuit, the taste evoked memories, he wrote a book…In light of what Proust wrote with so mild a stimulus, it is the world’s loss that he did not have a heartier appetite. On a dozen Gardiners Island oysters, a bowl of clam chowder, a peck of steamers, some bay scallops, three sautéed soft-shelled crabs, a few ears of fresh-picked corn, a thin swordfish steak of generous area, a pair of lobsters, and a Long Island duck, he might have written a masterpiece.”
Liebling, a great ‘feeder’ as he referred to himself (with the girth to back it up), was suggesting that the only food memories worth writing down are the ones that involve well-prepared, sumptuous feasts cooked with the freshest, finest ingredients available that will set you back either a small fortune, several hours out of your day or a few pounds in added weight—and often all three at once. Those are the food memories that come along only a handful of times in our lives if we are very lucky. The rest of the time our food memories are less about the food than where the memories actually take us: someplace that we no longer inhabit but can now briefly revisit. Food as a kind of time travel with the recipe card as your boarding pass.
When my sister came in town again just this past week to help me begin the decommissioning process of my parent’s home after we sadly had to move them to assisted living, I felt compelled to revisit my mother’s recipe cards. My sister and I had just spent a good portion of our time together combing through boxes of old photographs. It was a whirlwind tour of our family history packed into a few short days which got me thinking about the recipe cards where so many of those memories are stored.
As my mother nears the end of her life, I will be writing about some of her more iconic recipes from time to time, like The Meatloaf Odyssey that I wrote about a few months ago. I will not post about her every time, but when I do I hope they will spark some memories of your own beloved family meals.
For me, recipes are a way into our stories. My mother’s recipe cards give voice to hers.