The Unwritten History of a Recipe

A strange thing happened this afternoon.

As I leaned back against the kitchen sink, my eyes drifted from our grandson's red-crayon drawing held by a magnet on the refrigerator to the top of the appliance. I spied my wooden recipe box, won in a Newman's Own contest years ago.

I hadn't opened it since I moved to the farm four years ago. 

Those of you who know me well know I enjoy cooking and experimenting with new recipes and ingredients. In fact, one entire bookshelf in my living room is dedicated to cookbooks and notebooks filled with culinary treasures. Call it an obsession, call it a collection, but there's something nostalgic and inviting about old cookbooks and recipe boxes.

I retrieved the box from its dusty perch, wondering what recipes were inside. Had I committed these to memory? Or, had I simply forgotten about it?

Inside, I found handwritten recipes from my mother, youngest daughter, a former student, and my grandmother.  While I read through the lists of ingredients and detailed instructions, I thought about the hidden treasure I'd found.

This is about more than a recipe for baked steak or our family's favorite Swedish tea ring. 

These recipes have a story, a history, a reason why they're important.

On sheets of unruled writing paper, I read through my grandmother's recipe for baked steak and creamed onions. She doesn't list the ingredients or precise measurements. Instead, she speaks from experience, writing that placing "a thin layer of gravy in the bottom of the baking dish adds moisture to the cut of meat and prevents it from sticking" or  "to use multiplier onions because they have the best flavor."

 

It makes me wonder when she first prepared this recipe. Was she a young bride, waiting for my grandfather to come home from work, table set and dinner ready to serve? Had she learned these secrets from my great grandmother, a German immigrant who raised a family and worked on the family farm alongside her husband?

I'd eaten this dish many times when our family visited Grandma's house, but I'd never connected the dots between the recipe and her experiences.

What about the recipe cards given to me by a former student? One is for "Sarah's Chocolate Goody Bars," a treat she made for me on a depressing, chilly winter day nearly eight years ago. My husband had passed away a few short months before and some days, school took more energy than I had.

But Sarah made these treats and shared them with me. As she sat next to my desk, she described kitchen tricks she'd discovered while making this recipe and others, like taking advantage of shortcuts by spicing up a boxed mix. I learned more about this student listening to her talk about her adventures in cooking and why cooking and food mattered than I did watching her diagram sentences or write a five-paragraph essay. 

I also located four pages handwritten by my youngest daughter, Courtney. When she was a freshman in high school, she went on a holiday cooking spree. Now, I have her recipes, written on college-ruled notebook paper, crib notes in the margins listing improvements.

The history behind these gems? Her step-father's death the month before and our first Christmas spent alone. Neither of us felt like celebrating, but in order to maintain some semblance of normalcy, we found comfort creating in the kitchen.

If you think about food as simply that - a consumable product - you may not have much of a story. But once you consider the background of the recipe and the history of the cook, you find a delicious blend that weaves a storyline.

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