Wednesday, March 2, 2011

An Ode to the Old-Fashioned Recipe Book

Isn't there something wonderful about following a recipe? The way in which certain ingredients, when combined in a specific way, will produce the same dish, time and time again? Or the way in which a recipe can be handed down through generations so that a person living in America today can enjoy the same foods her great-grandparents once cooked in Eastern Europe or Italy or Mexico?

My current, over-stuffed recipe book
I enjoy reading recipes, especially old ones, and see them as much as a commentary on the times in which they were written as a way to make a meal.  It's interesting to see how ingredients and methods go in and out of fashion and how a simple recipe can capture something of the mood and motion of the culture that created it (think of all the canned and convenience-food recipes of the 50s and 60s, for example, or the Victory Garden staples of the 1940s).

There's something even more appealing about a handwritten recipe.  It intimately connects the would-be cook or baker to the person who copied it out and also, perhaps, to the event or setting in which that recipe was first tried, tasted and approved.  My mother has hundreds of recipes like this - some written neatly on special, personalized cards, others scribbled onto tiny sticky-notes or scrawled on napkins.  She keeps them organized in a recipe binder, filled with clear plastic sheets that are separated into categories of her own devising.

As a young girl, I also collected handwritten recipes and kept them in my very first recipe book - actually it was a recipe box; a small, light blue plastic box filled with color coded 3x5-inch cards that I painstakingly copied out in my large, rounded, child's handwriting.  Soon,  the box contained recipes for such family standards as my Grandma's Famous Chocolate Fudge Icing, my brother's favorite bread pudding and my mother's sausage-egg-and-cheese breakfast casserole, which we still serve every year on Christmas morning.

As my collection grew, my color-system fell apart and the box was soon stuffed with clippings from newspapers and magazines, and full of recipe cards received from others.  It must have looked like chaos to the casual observer, but I prided myself on the fact that I could always find exactly what I needed.  I used it all throughout high school, but when I went away to college the recipe box stayed behind.  A few years later, it was boxed up and packed away with all my childhood belongings when my parents left England.

I didn't see it again for several years, until after Matthew and I had married and it was time to move my boxes out of my parent's attic.  Discovering the blue box again, after so long an absence, was like opening up a window onto my past.  Far from being simply a loose aggregation of dishes tried and tasted, the collection read like narrative of my early years.  It began with our hand-copied family favorites but soon branched out to include those of others and finally some that I discovered on my own. I could see my own tastes changing and maturing and, in the cards written by others, could remember parties and tastes and experiences I thought I had long since forgotten.

As much as the trip down memory lane was enjoyable, it also made me a little sad to realize that my once-treasured recipe box had become an artifact.  Once it was indispensable, but now I had survived several years without it, baking and cooking just as before.

It seems like handwritten recipes are becoming a rarity in these days of e-mail and the Internet - and I am as guilty of their endangerment as anyone.  Many times I've e-mailed a recipe when asked for one, or referred friends to a website, in lieu of laboriously copying out the instructions by hand.  These days, my go-to recipe book looks a lot like my computer and my recipe cards look a lot like the food and cooking blogs I read every day.  There's nothing really wrong with this, except that I can't help but feel a small sense of loss.  I'm not sure that passing this blog, and all its recipes, on to my eventual children will feel as weighty and significant as the hand-copied papers and cards my mother and grandmother passed on to me.

Of course, there are benefits to these changes as well.  I've been exposed to more foods and cuisines than my card-trading predecessors could have imagined and I can share my recipes with more people online than I could ever have reached with sticky-notes and a pen.  I love learning more and more about the world of food, and the Internet makes continual learning not only possible, but actually easy and accessible.

Still, I'm not ready to give up my old habits just yet and I'm eager to reap the benefits of having it both ways.  I don't use the blue box anymore, but a few Christmases ago my sister gave me a new recipe book.  It's a lot like my mother's, with some paper pages added to the plastic sheets so that you can write your own recipes in a uniform style.  My sister filled in a few pages before she gave it to me (it was fun to see which recipes she chose) and I added to them.  Then, soon enough, the book began to be stuffed with clippings and collected recipe cards that didn't fit inside the neat plastic sheets.  It was my recipe-box history repeating itself all over again.

Every so often, I'll sit down to trim and paste my clippings and make it more orderly (usually while Matt and I are watching a movie, since I seem unable to keep from doing several things at once) but I always collect them much faster than I can tidy them.  It looks like chaos, now - much like my old, blue box always did - but I still pride myself on knowing the exact location of each recipe and, whether I need an old favorite or just a trip down memory lane, I know they and their stories will be there.

No comments:

Post a Comment