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An Inventory Of My Mother’s Recipe Box

06-26-15 Recipe Box-1

My drawer of plastic storage containers recently reached maximum capacity and I had to make some hard decisions about what to toss. After I matched tops and bottoms, separated the Rubbermaid from the Tupperware, and accepted that I would never use the pastel bunny-face popsicle molds, I discovered a slightly rusty metal box with a hinged lid. My mother’s recipe holder.

This box lived in the drawer beneath our wall oven at my childhood home, along with all my mom’s cookbooks. When she moved out and got rid of most everything, I kept the box for sentimental reasons. I can’t remember my mother ever using the box when she cooked. In fact, I can barely remember her cooking.

Due to her declining health from Multiple Sclerosis (M.S.), family meals disappeared by the time I reached puberty. However, I learned to cook early, thanks to her encouragement – and benign neglect of my kitchen experiments.

Southern Living, Betty Crocker, and the Amana Touchmatic II Radarange Microwave Oven Cook Book were my early cooking instructors. On my own I figured out how to dispose of the evidence: muffins like hockey pucks, briquette brownies, and a confusing puddle of sugar syrup that was supposed to be microwave taffy.

My fondest memories in the kitchen are all at my grandmother’s house. At home, I blazed a solo trail of culinary inquiry because even before M.S. made cooking impossible for her my mother had a tenuous relationship with food.

She told me about starving herself all day in high school so she could have a plate of French Fries and a coke after class and still stay skinny. Smoking was a great way to stay thin, but she said she never liked it enough to keep going. She blamed growing up during World War II for malnutrition and told me that was probably why she had such bird bones. Indeed, old photos and dresses show that she didn’t eat much.

Mommy Bathing Suit

(This is not a physical trait I share with my mom. I couldn’t fit into her wedding dress when I was eight years old.)

Back when she did cook for the family, my mom’s rotation included lemon chicken, beef-and-rice, and liver-and-onions. I vividly recall her attempt at stuffing a whole head of cabbage. It freaked me out because it looked like a brain stewing on the stove.

My mother’s taste in food always seemed odd to me. She liked peanut butter and tomato sandwiches, crystallized ginger straight from the container, and liver-and-onions. If I ever wanted to give her a food gift, I’d just think about the last thing I’d ever want to eat and get her that.

The tin box of recipe cards, dishes my mother made a point of remembering, sat under the spare ice trays at the very back of my storage drawer. It escaped the trash can in past years because I promised myself I would find a recipe I liked and think of my mother as I made it. As long as I didn’t open the box, I imagined there was some wonderful meal with the aroma of her loving memory.

This time, the tin box couldn’t deflect my organization zeal with a nostalgic fantasy. A husband, a son, and a daughter all need copious containers to fill their lunch sacks. Storage in my kitchen is a high stakes Tetris game, and I can fit an entire sandwich kit in the space those old recipes occupy.

To purge any sentimentality, I took a calculating, clinical look at the box’s contents. Below is my Recipe Inventory. All recipe names are directly from the cards.

Drinks: 4

+ Mulled Wine
+ Unnamed Punch with Apple and Cranberry Juice
+ Instant Russian Tea
made with Tang 
+ Strawberry Tea Punch
recipe printed on a Lipton Tea Bag envelope

Sauces: 2

+ Hollaidaise (sic)
handwritten card with 11 drips obscuring words
+ White Sauce
handwritten card with 1 large brown drip

Bread: 1

+ Quick Family Dinner Rolls
total time to prepare rolls: 2 hours

Salads: 6

+ Congealed Salad
ingredients include orange Jell-O
+ Blueberry Salad
ingredients include Blackberry jello {A&P} (sic)
+ Fruit Cocktail ‘N Cottage Cheese Salad
recipe cut from a label of a Libby’s Fruit Cocktail in heavy syrup
ingredients include lime-flavored gelatin
+ Strawberry & Banana Salad
ingredients include 3 pks. strawberry & banana jello
+ Salad
ingredients include Marshmallows, crushed pineapple, mayonnaise, and lime Jello
+ Shrimp-and-Rice Salad Ring
ingredients include shrimp, green onions, rice, broth, mayonnaise, red food coloring, heavy cream, and gelatin

Casseroles: 8

+ Apple-Banana Casserole
+ Hamburger Casserole
+ Ham and Rice Casserole
+ Broccoli Casserole
handwritten
+ Broccoli Casserole
exact same recipe as above, but in a different handwriting
+ unnamed cornbread dressing casserole
+ Seven Seas Casserole
recipe cut from a box of Minute Rice
ingredients include 1 can tuna, condensed cream of celery soup, and cooked peas
+ unnamed chicken casserole
typed
ingredients include 4 chicken breasts, cream of mushroom soup, chipped beef, bacon, and sour cream
+ unnamed chicken casserole
handwritten written on back of State Employee’s Credit Union withdrawal slip
also written on slip is the number of someone named Dave

Dips: 2

+ Tomato Dip
+ CAL-O-RRIFIC DIP
recipe cut from a box of Wheat Thins Crackers

Spreads: 1

+ Beef Spread
ingredients include Smoked Chopped Beef, cream cheese, mayonnaise, sherry, and olives

Party Mix: 1

+ Toasted Party Mix
recipe cut from a magazine ad for Cheerios

Chicken Dishes: 7

+ Chicken Diable (sic)
+ Hungarian Chicken
handwritten on Tiki stationery, not my mother’s handwriting
+ Hungary
handwritten in my mother’s handwriting
+ Chicken Tahitian
+ Chicken Kiev
written on PARKS BUILDING SUPPLY COMPANY note paper
+ Boned Chicken Stuffed with Wild Rice Dressing
recipe cut from newspaper
+ Chicken Liver Saute Japanese Dish
recipe cut from newspaper
headline above recipe: “Japanese-accented liver dish is really delicious”

Beef Dishes: 13

+ Teriyaki Steak (Island Favorite from Japan)
recipe cut from newspaper
+ Braised Short Ribs of Beef for a Crowd
recipe cut from newspaper
+ Grenadin of Beef Tenderloin
recipe cut from newspaper
+ Filet Steak Diane
recipe cut from newspaper

+ Chuckwagon Beef on a Skewer
recipe cut from newspaper
+ Beef Burger Barbecue
recipe cut from newspaper

+ Marinated Steaks
recipe cut from newspaper
+ 30 Second Pan Fried Steak
recipe cut from newspaper
+ Steak San Marco
handwritten
+ Chinese Beef
handwritten
+ Chinese Beef and Rice
handwritten
+ NGO YuK Fan Kay (Beef Tomato)
handwritten
+ Ris de Veau Braised au Jus
recipe cut from a magazine

Specialty Dishes: 10

+ Egg Fried Rice
+ Shrimp Eloise
+ Asparagus Venetian
+ Fondue for Every Taste
recipe page cut from TV Guide, October 7, 1971
includes recipes for Cheese Fondue, Chocolate Fondue, Fondue Bourguinonne, and Fondue Orientale (made with only chicken broth and white wine)
+ Chile Rellenos
+ Taco Pie
handwritten
ingredients include canned “creasant” (sic) rolls, Fritos, burger, sour cream, american cheese, more Fritos, and “sreaded” (sic) lettuce
+ Beefy Quiche
+ Surprise Tuna Quiche
recipe cut from a magazine
last line of directions reads, “This quiche is unique in that it has its own ‘surprise’ cheese sauce.”

Sweets: 26

+ Butter-Cinnamon Delight
+ Butterballs
+ Congo Cookies
+ Marshmallow Treats
recipe cut from a Rice Krispies box
+ Cinnamon Coffee Cake
+ Glaze
made with sugar, butter, and rum
+ Icing
made with 1 can Baker’s coconut
+Quick Trick Fruitcake
recipe cut from Betty Crocker Date Bar Mix box
+ Carnation Five Minute Fudge
recipe cut from a can of Carnation milk
+ 24 Min. Chocolate Cake
+ Pillsbury Create-a-Cake Mix Recipe Booklet
+ Fresh Strawberry Pie
recipe cut from magazine ad for Cool Whip

+ Lemon Ice Box Whipped Cream Pie
+ Cherry Topped Cheese Pie
ingredients include cream cheese
+ Lemon Cheese Cake with Lemon Cheese Filling
ingredients do NOT include cheese of any kind
+ Coconut Pie
+ Candy Apples
2 copies of same recipe
+ Coca-Cola Cake
2 copies of same recipe
+ Orange Kiss-Me Cake
+ Orange Candy Cake
ingredients include a 14 oz. box of dates and 1 lb. orange candy slices
+ Carrot Cake
the only recipe she wrote her name on
+ Banana Nut Bread
+ Pineapple Nut Bread
+ Strawberry Nut Bread
handwritten in my sister’s handwriting
+ Brownies
handwritten by me, around age 10, on notebook paper
ingredients include “shorting” (sic) and “baking power” (sic)
corner of recipe page burned

 

You couldn’t pay me to prepare or eat the vast majority of these recipes. How can a person have SIX salads, all gelatin-based, and nary a one featuring lettuce? A casserole with chicken, beef, AND bacon is just pandering to the barnyard. My surprise about the Surprise Tuna Quiche is that anyone would think canned tuna and American cheese quiche would be a good idea. TV Guide simply isn’t a source I trust for fondue. Popular cuisine from the late 60’s and early 70’s just didn’t have legs, like a lot of culture from that time.

Nostalgia looks best with movie lighting, and very little analysis. Under the harsh glare of retrospect, many things that were special in the past become grotesque, outdated, and revolting. I think it’s time to let go of those wistful dreams of reliving good old days that never were.

At the same time, opening that box released a flood of laughter, and nausea, and happy memories. Each recipe took me back to church potlucks, neighborhood barbecues, family gatherings, and ordinary weekdays after school when my mother would talk with me for hours. While we didn’t have gourmet meals, we had delicious conversations and shared juicy stories about our lives.

Even if the recipes are ready to be retired from active duty, they still have value. I can use them to tell my kids about the grandmother they didn’t get a chance to know – and how lucky they are to have me in the kitchen instead.

This is why my house is cluttered. This is why I’ll never achieve the modern minimalist decor that looks so exquisitely clean and child-free in the magazines. This is why the storage drawer is always at maximum capacity. Family history is the reason I live in Dirty House Beautiful.

***

In all of the box, there is one recipe that I’ll keep in the kitchen – the one written in my sister’s handwriting.
Strawberry Nut Bread is a heroic treat.

According to my sister’s testimony, one day she pulled into the parking lot of the fabric store and saw an older woman lying on the ground, and another woman helping her get up. Then my sister noticed a man running away with a purse in his hand. So, she revved the engine on her Toyota Celica and drove after him, even jumping the curb in her little red two-seater and pursuing him down the sidewalk. The snatcher finally threw the purse back at the car’s windshield to get my sister off his tail.

My sister carried the purse back to the woman. Then, they came to discover that the victim was a close friend of my grandmother. A few days later, my sister received a fresh baked loaf of Strawberry Nut Bread, with the recipe attached, and a lovely handwritten thank you note.

I’ll save you from the Chicken Liver Saute Japanese Dish, even though it bears the headline, “Japanese-accented liver dish is really delicious”. Instead, take some U-pick strawberries out of the freezer and give this a try.

06-26-15 Strawberry Nut Bread 1 06-26-15 Strawberry Nut Bread 2