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A Box Full of Memories
I was weeks away from my wedding day and there I sat on the kitchen counter trying to learn how to cook. I know, sitting on the counter seems like a strange way to learn the art of food preparation, but I was actually trying to write down my mother’s recipes as she moved about the kitchen. Over the previous months my soon-to-be husband had asked on numerous occasions if I was learning how to cook, and I could tell he was beginning to worry that this marriage might lead to starvation. It’s not like I’d never been in the kitchen. As young girls we had prepared simple meals (once a week), learned to set a proper table, and taken our turn washing dishes.
But my mother rarely used a recipe which was challenging since I was trying to make sure I knew how she made a pot roast with carrots and onions, mashed potatoes, chicken pot pie, and all the other wonderful things she prepared for us. She didn’t measure her ingredients when she made biscuits or cornbread or most anything else which made my learning curve pretty steep. So those first months of marital bliss became a bit strained when we ate yet another meal using hamburger helper or boxed dressing, both of which have been forever banned from the kitchen.
Over time, I began gathering recipes from women that had cooked for years and made remarkable dishes I wanted to serve at my own table. My mother-in-law generously gave me her recipes for apple dumplings, pork and sauerkraut, and the best hot mustard and cucumber relish you've ever put on a hotdog, and so many other wonderful dishes that have probably saved my marriage!
She also gave me her grandmother’s recipe books. The pages are yellowed and there’s spots of now-dried ingredients splashed on the pages. They’re all handwritten on backs of envelopes or torn from the pages of the newspaper or magazines, and often they’re dated with the name of the person that passed the recipe on to her. The earliest one I’ve found was written in 1927.
There’s also a folded instruction sheet that gives directions on “how you can have a ration free supply of canned fruits and tomatoes for your family” distributed during World War II.
I too have recipes from magazines including one for homemade bread that I’ve used for over 30 years. As I thumb through my collection of recipes, they not only speak of food but of experiences tied to the dishes themselves. For example, I have a stack of recipe cards that came through the house flood we experienced in the early 90’s. I had previously covered the cards with clear contact paper so they would stay clean, not knowing that because of that, they would survive being totally submerged under water. There’s the recipe for made-from-scratch donuts that Joe, the Polish baker, gave to me when I worked for him at 4:00 a.m. on many mornings. The recipe makes 24 dozen, so it’s one of those I cherish but haven’t used. We teased him that he would die from brown lung because he threw such large amounts of cinnamon around the kitchen we worked among the clouds he dispersed. I have my father’s homemade ice cream recipe tucked in the dessert file. With that come the memories of blanket sitting on Sunday afternoons giving ourselves brain freezes! I’m not sure why, but homemade ice cream is just much colder than store bought. I still make pumpkin pies using my mother’s old Borden’s Eagle Brand booklet that contains “70 Magic Recipes.” Published in the 50’s, it features Daisy the cow as well as the common pictures of the Dick and Jane era of families.
And the tradition continues as my grandchildren work with me in the kitchen. They especially enjoy cracking the fresh eggs they’ve gathered from the hen house. I measure out the ingredients and they dump and stir using my vintage handheld egg beater. On one occasion, when my husband was sick, I happened to be keeping one of our granddaughters. We were in the garden digging up potatoes and carrots when she announced we should make some soup for him so he would feel better. And that’s just what we did…with no recipe at all. If asked for the measured ingredients, I’m afraid I’d be standing in my mother’s shoes, hard pressed to give an answer with nothing but a head full of food laden memories.