I’m a great one for saving recipes from the newspaper. Not for actually making any of the dishes; just saving the recipes.
Especially if the recipe has a color photograph. Just picture this in living color: Rosemary Apricot Pork Tenderloin. Baked Chicken in Lemon Sauce. Blackened Salmon with Cilantro-Lime Crème Fraiche. Oh, does that look good.
I especially like recipes with adjectives in the names: Perfect Pot Roast. Sprightly Potato Salad. Sensuous Stuffed Mushrooms. Oh, does that sound good.
Now if only someone would show up at my door with it all prepared and ready to eat. Preferably with a nicely chilled chardonnay.
It was one such recipe – and color photo – that sent me to my own collection. I use that word guardedly; I’m not talking about a recipe box or accordion folder with every recipe in its place: appetizers, casseroles, desserts, fish, meat.
My collection resides in an old, large white envelope that’s torn along one side, and the contents are in no recognizable order. So when I actually want something, it means burrowing through a messy mound of newspaper clippings, recipes cards of many sizes, and scraps of paper in many shapes. By the time I find it, I’ve usually lost interest in making whatever I was looking for.
So, back to that recipe and the color photo. It was for Sloppy Joes, and it looked good, but I knew I had Mom’s recipe, and hers sounded a lot better than the newspaper’s offering. So the hunt began.
Only this time, I did things differently.
Instead of a quick glance and on to the next clipping (or recipe card or scrap of paper), I actually spent some time visiting with my past. And with the women who, over the years, have shared not only their recipes, but their wisdom, as well.
First: Mom. She sent me lots of recipes, all in her familiar, beloved handwriting. Mom knew I wasn’t much for cooking, plus I was single and lived alone. She envisioned me, I’m certain, standing over the kitchen sink and eating out of a can, so recipes were her way of encouraging me to occasionally make a decent meal for myself. Hence, “Dear Laura, Here’s a recipe that’s real easy.”
How well Mom knew me!
That contribution was her Spinach Fandango, but my collection also includes her Chicken Gabriela, Lemony Steamed Fish, Roast Pork Boulanger, the aforementioned Sloppy Joes, and many more. As I sifted through them I realized I didn’t want to make any of them. I wanted to be back in Mom’s kitchen, with wonderful cooking smells surrounding me and a homemade dinner headed for the table. But Mom died 25 years ago, and you can’t go home to eat again.
Mom’s mom, my Grandma, was also big on encouraging me to cook. Especially after I moved from Michigan to California and discovered a wonderful appetizer called “Potato Skins.” I actually started making my own version, and told Grandma about it when I next went back to visit. She nodded, somewhat indulgently – California was a strange place, after all – then asked what I did with the insides of the potatoes after I’d made Potato Skins.
“I throw them away,” I shrugged.
She was horrified at the thought of wasted food, and went on a quest to find something to do with all those insides of potatoes. So as I searched through my recipes I encountered “Mrs. Streeter’s Cake” which calls for “two cups of mashed potatoes.” Then there was Potato Fudge. And Potato Candy Log. And Potato Biscuits.
Grandma’s recipes were also handwritten, hers on pieces of paper, her handwriting shakier in her later years. But if her handwriting had gotten shaky, her brain had not, and she always included helpful hints along with the recipes: “In case you already have a Bean Salad recipe, waste basket.” “Put a dollop on top of the Fruit Salad.” (“Dollop” was family lingo for “a copious amount of whipped cream.”) “Try your hand at cookies,” she urged. Then there was a chicken recipe that wasn’t all that complicated, but ended with, “Maybe I can explain when you visit us.”
How well Grandma knew me!
My mother-in-law made many contributions to my collection, most of them at my request. She’d invite my husband and me over for dinner, and I’d ask for one or more of her recipes from that evening’s meal. I’ve realized this is something of a ritual, to compliment a hostess by saying, “This is so good, I want to make it, too.” I know this to be true, because I can’t think of anyone who’s ever asked me for a recipe. When I do cook, more often than not my husband and I will look at each other and say, “Well, I don’t need to have this again.”
Not so with my mother-in-law. She was a great cook, and gladly provided any recipe I asked for: Beef Stroganoff, Chinese Chicken Slaw, Hot Crab Dip, Red Clam Chowder. She gladly provided, but she learned to stop asking if I’d actually made the Hot Crab Dip, or whatever.
I encountered other great cooks on my recipe journey: my sister and her Frances’ French Chicken. (“You can’t go wrong!” she wrote at the top. HA!) Aunt Max and her Cheesy Potatoes. Two recipes from my husband’s boss’ wife. Yes, I was complimenting the hostess.
OK, I was sucking up. What are the chances I’m going to make Pickled Cauliflower?
Caesar Salad from one sister-in-law, Stuffed Mushrooms from another, Gazpacho recipes from my vegetarian friend, and Hot Spiced Cider from my alcoholic friend.
In fact, for years I’ve been around great cooks and managed to not become one.
Then there was a recipe from a cousin with a title I can only describe as scary: Spinach Balls. And as if that wasn’t scary enough, attached to it for the calorie-conscious: Low-Fat Spinach Balls.
And what’s with this recipe I’d obviously torn from a cookbook? Torn from a cookbook? Even I know this is not good etiquette. Ah – it’s for Hot Fudge Pudding, and I can assure you that when it comes to fudge, there’s no such thing as larceny.
There were a few recipes in my own girlish, very-young-20s handwriting: Oven Fried Chicken, Dijon Chicken, Stuffed Chicken Breasts. I must have had a thing for chicken. Or maybe I thought, “Chicken! You can’t go wrong!” HA! And recipes in my more mature handwriting: Broccoli Stir Fry, Spinach Salad Dressing, and my Mom’s potato salad, which I’ve never been able to duplicate.
Of course not. It was Mom’s potato salad.
As I reached the bottom of the pile, I realized for the first time what a presence was in that old white envelope: my mother, grandmother and mother-in-law; my sister and sisters-in-law; my cousin, my friends.
And I have used some of their recipes – these are the few that are stained, somewhat wrinkled, somewhat faded, but treasured. There are many more I doubt I’ll ever make.
But would I throw even a single one away?