Recipe Boxes

Something came up today that made me think about recipe boxes. You know those heirloom collections of handwritten recipes on index cards?

I didn’t inherit my grandmother’s cooking skills, but I did wind up with her recipe boxes.

And I’m fairly sure that at least a few of the recipes go back to my great grandmother, or earlier.

I never cook and when I do, I certainly don’t cook for the hordes that previous generations have had to contend with. As a happy, childless person, I don’t cook for a family-sized group more than once or twice a year. I don’t have the time for the kitchen conquests of old, and just out of curiosity… What exactly is a “nice dough”? (Doesn’t really matter. I don’t have the patience for yeast breads.)

A number of the recipes aren’t standardized, which means that in order to get them right, you have to know generally what the cups in any given cook’s house looked like. I should have inherited a cup to go with my great grandmother’s recipes, but time, and pottery sherds. At least I’ve seen them.

Then, there are the unwritten details. Yes, you can run nuts through a hand coffee grinder. They have to be frozen, and you aren’t supposed to tell anyone that they are pecans. (By the time they get to the table, most people aren’t going to know for sure.) I’m not sure where my hand coffee grinder is.

It’s the politics of the thing that intrigues me.

Who gets a recipe? Who’s part of the community? Who gets that secret ingredient to go with the recipe? That’s a real seal of approval.

Who gets one of great granny’s cups, and who doesn’t? (Those mismatched, ugly old things? Those are measuring cups, not table cups. And don’t break one.)

I’ve seen grown women break down in tears when they think they’ve lost one of their mother’s recipe cards. THE card, usually. The one that comes out at Thanksgiving and special occasions.

Those cards are a connection to the community and the past in a way that not much is. Want a slice of great-grandma’s chocolate pie? For a little while, the kitchen smells like the women of the past are there again. Every now and then, I’ll figure it out and be shocked. My grandmother had a recipe from so-and-so’s great grandmother… The families have known each other for how long? There are no strangers in a small town.

I can see the connections between communities, too. Kolache recipe? Enchiladas? I don’t remember my grandmother ever making kolaches, but she was enamored of the enchilada recipe she’d been given. You can just see those women trading back and forth between towns. Before the days of the internet, that would have been a real effort.

Obviously, the whole recipe-trading culture needs to be moved onto a spaceship. Excuse me while I do that.


  1. Reply

    I *love* the image of spacefaring people trading recipes! Phasers, hyperdrive, and the perfect cannoli recipe (traded in the observation deck with a background of stars).

    This was a really great post. Thank you!

  2. Reply

    The right recipe card is time travel, and the secrets of time travel aren’t just given out for the asking. You do indeed have to earn the privilege. It’s so cool that you have cards reaching back into the past like those do!

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