Out of the Box

Recipes spilling out on counterMy daughter Ally says I’m a hoarder. She may have a point. As I search the cupboards for a spanakopita recipe gone missing, hundreds of loose clippings cascade to the floor.

Not one is from my mother. She’s bequeathed many wonderful things, but heirloom recipes and a deft hand in the kitchen are not among them. What tumbled from my mother’s cupboards were boxes of Cheez-Its and Ring-Dings. Mostly they brought private relief from the black hole of suburban housewifery. But every afternoon when I came home from school, my mother shared her stash while I shared the ins and outs of the day. I loved licking the salty orange dust from my fingertips and how the glazed chocolate shell yielded to the cake’s soft interior.

Since my mother’s cooking skills were limited to sprinkling onion soup mix atop a cheap cut of beef, most of my childhood meals came from a box. We had almost no cookbooks. Just an ancient Fannie Farmer and a pristine Mastering the Art of French Cooking, the latter a gift from my father laden with hope and rebuke. One prized paperback summed up my mother’s culinary philosophy: Peg Bracken’s I Hate to Cook Book.

But I loved to cook, or at least to experiment, and my mother loved to indulge my whims. Perhaps hoping to someday palm off the task of feeding us night after unending night, she never minded the spills on the counter or the mess of bowls in the sink. My first made-from-scratch cake had the heft and taste of a hockey puck. Yet my mother and I delighted in the rainbow frosting magically created from just four squeeze bottles of food coloring. By high school, I had graduated to fancy-dress dinner parties for my friends featuring Boeuf Bourguignon. Julia Child was at last put to good use. Still mastering the art of baking, I also served an inedible Apple Harvest Cake as cloying as marshmallow fluff.

I have been collecting recipes ever since, and am renowned for my cakes–chocolate-espresso tortes, lemon bundts that pucker the mouth into permanent ecstasy, an apple-walnut cake that lays to rest the ghastly sweet ghost of its predecessor.

My daughter and I have continued the ritual of sharing gossip and snacks in the kitchen, with one crucial difference. From the time Ally could stand, she’s been folding wet ingredients into dry, absorbing my preference for food made from scratch. Once she even pulverized Cheez-Its, reconstituted the crumbs with water, and baked the soggy mass in a quest for home-baked goodness. When Ally left for college, I hand-copied her favorite recipes into a scrapbook. Like my mother, I enjoy the fruits of my encouragement, and of Ally’s labor: she gladly cooks for us every time she’s home.

Ally has a lot of recipes to choose from: The Joy of Cooking competes for shelf space with whole volumes dedicated to soup, chicken, pasta, chocolate, every world cuisine and passing food fad. Weight Watchers and vegetarian cookbooks stand ready in case I ever follow through on my good intentions.

But the books are nothing compared to big manila envelopes stuffed with recipes culled from magazines, newspapers, and the mothers of ex-boyfriends. So I’ve hired my daughter, who’s looking to earn some extra cash between college and a real job, to tame the mess. True to her generation, Ally seeks a technological fix.

“Haven’t you heard of the internet?” she asks.

I have. But online browsing can’t compete with sitting down surrounded by stacks of books and clippings to plan a dinner party, a week’s menus, or how to use the odds and ends at the back of the fridge.

Ally is right, though: It’s gotten out of hand. So I set her up with scissors, double-stick tape, and notebooks to organize my recipes, most of which I’ve never tried. Like every hoarder, I hold out hope that someday I’ll put everything to use.

“When are you ever going to make Buche de Noel with Meringue Mushrooms?” Ally inquires.

I swear that this year will be different from Christmases past. But Ally lacks faith that my plans for show-stopper desserts will no longer fall victim to last-minute wrapping. Nor does she appreciate the value of multiples. Otherwise, she wouldn’t bother asking, “Do you really need another recipe for dal?”

Hmmm. Letting go is hard, but I suppose not. One for the “Discard” pile.

“How many different kinds of chocolate cake do you plan to bake?” Ally persists.

All of them. Chocolate has its own special “Keep” pile.

Now I get why hoarders go psychotic when well-intentioned relatives trick them into leaving the house, then move in with dumpsters. Since Ally clearly cannot be trusted with sorting, I must discern my own treasure from trash.

Sifting through 40 years’ worth of recipes is like an archeological dig. Excavating the layers uncovers a civilization once heedless of time and cholesterol—1 cup heavy cream, ½ pound grated cheddar, ½ pound ham, just to make a noodle casserole. Or Duck Gallantine, which involves boning a duck and rendering fat for many hours. I have rendered a lot of fat in my life, and most of it is on my hips. I prefer a faster route, via scrumptious chocolate layer bars.

The dig also reveals an era of unexecuted dinner parties that would have led to insurrection by Downton Abbey’s kitchen staff: Roast Saddle of Veal with Mushroom Sauce for 12; Ham Braised in Port with Brown-Sugar Crust for 20. My early browsing exposes a period of sheer fantasy: enough time and money, matching china and crystal, and a couple of Masterpiece cooks on loan from BBC.

This by-gone epoch is overlaid by the reality of young family life, with lots of hidden-vegetable recipes. Next comes the modern era of chicken every which way and grains previously known only to ancient Incas.

Finally I am ready to turn over the clippings that have escaped the recycling bin. Ally sets to work as I hover nearby to make sure she doesn’t jettison my multiple cheesecake recipes.

Now we are cooking! In no time at all, Ally has brought order from chaos. She is also salivating. “Let’s make Portobello Bourguignon!” she exclaims, echoing my youthful pick with a vegetarian version sure to win over Julia Child.

And so we do, working side by side, peeling, chopping, sharing the ins and outs of the day. I imagine my mother, Ring Ding in one hand, saluting us with a box of Cheez-Its in the other.

(Originally published in skirt! Magazine)

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What are your family’s food and cooking traditions? How do you organize your recipes? Any favorites you’d care to share? (I’ve cheated and found some links for some of the drool-worthy ones I mention, but of course they are missing my tweaks and all the stains on the page. And alas, I could not find Tart’s chocolate-espresso torte recipe, so you will have to come paw through my tattered index cards.)

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11 thoughts on “Out of the Box

  1. Pingback: Buche de NO-el | Shrinkrapped

  2. I love the ending of this mouth watering story. All the yummy recipies you have shared with your daughter to encourage the cultivated palate of hers. I too enjoy sharing the culinary arts with our children. And when I am given the opportunity to cook with my loving daughter I am super happy. Cheers to more mouth watering goodies to spring from your oven : D

  3. I love this piece. And I would have killed for a Ring Ding. And fond memories of beef smothered in onion soup mix and cream of mushroom soup. I may need to borrow your daughter to sort through the drawer of manila envelopes that have titles like appetizers, sides, soups but inside are just a heap of everything. I agree that the internet is not the same. I rip at least one recipe a week from a magazine or newspaper

    • So glad you like it, Marianne. Our food nostalgia is similar. Your manila envelopes are a lot like mine. And running back and forth to my laptop today for the next step in chocolate-pecan tart just was not as satisfying. Happy eating!

  4. Oh, I do recognize a bit of myself in this. I did hire an organizer one day in an effort to get myself on track. It worked for that day. And I’ve tried the methods in the book “Getting Things Done.” It worked for awhile. I recently managed to recycle an entire box of recipes, so I’m now down to one. Still highly ambitious, I think I’ll make some of these sometime down the road. Instead, I make the usual handful that I know so well I no longer need the recipe. I’m also trying to rid myself of clutter elsewhere. But as I helped clean out my mother’s study (the room that used to be mine growing up), wading through the piles of newspaper clippings, file folders of photos, and birthday cards, I realized that my genes will continue to fight every attempt to line up my life in any kind of orderly fashion. Sigh. I’m with you.

    • Right next to my laptop as I write this, I’m looking at a huge box of photos that I vowed to organize several months ago, when I couldn’t find a picture I desperately wanted to find. I ran out of steam after a short time, and there the box sits. I’ll probably consider it accomplishment enough should I wise up and stick the box back in the basement so it is not glowering at me every day. Perhaps order is overrated! Thanks for writing, Jilanne.

  5. One of the best gifts my daughter gave me was to transcribe all my collected recipes into a folder on Dropbox and then print them all out in a photo album. Now we both have access to them from separate parts of the country and I no longer have to guess ingredients when shopping if I decide while marketing tonight’s menu. She takes my folders full of recipes that caught my eye or were given to me by friends over the years.

      • Well she did print or reach recipe and put them each in a book for me, so I still got the hard copies for my every day use. But the cool thing is that when we were in Australia for five months, earlier this year, I didn’t need to bring the recipe book as I could look every recipe up on my tablet for shopping and cooking there!

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