One of the things that came to me from my mom’s “estate” – the few possessions that were left when she died some fifteen years ago – was her recipe box. I’m not sure why I got it because I’m not the best cook in the world. Mom would have been amused. On the other hand, she had already given me her precious bread board, along with her ancient cast iron frying pan and Dutch oven, so at least she knew I had a love for the historical. Anyway, I recently had occasion to pull the box out of my cupboard a few weeks ago when I was searching for her recipe for corn bread.
Corn bread (or as we called it, Johnny cake) was an integral part of one of my favorite meals growing up in South Buffalo. It would start with Mom cooking an old stewing hen in our stove’s deep well burner, which was a regular back burner sunken into the inside of the stove. An aluminum pot with a cover fit down into it and it was great for cooking soups and stews. The hen would cook for hours and hours. And hours. The resultant tender chicken was made into chicken fricassee one night and all of the broth became chicken soup for another meal. We loved both, but the soup was my favorite. Served with the Johnny cake, it was hearty fare for a cold winter’s night.
When my husband and I were first married, it quickly became evident that I was to be the chief cook and bottle washer. Still am the chief cook, too. (For the record, though, the deal is, if one guy cooks, the other cleans up. “But I don’t cook,” he protests. “Exactly,” I say. And so he does the bottle washing. Also the pots and pans, etc.) So I cooked the chicken and put the meat away for another meal, then made chicken soup with vegetables and noodles, just like my mom. For some reason, we never had actual chicken meat in our soup. I also made some johnny cake, warm and slathered with butter. And I served it to my husband. And he ate it. Enjoyed it. Smacked his lips and asked, “What’s for dinner?”
“What’s for dinner?” I repeated. “That is dinner.”
In all fairness, this was a guy who ate four sandwiches for lunch. I probably shouldn’t have been surprised that my “dinner” came off as an appetizer.
All this came back to me in a rush as I sorted through my mom’s metal recipe box. Times having changed a bit and us getting older, the classic soup and corn bread meal is now perfectly okay. Even preferred. I found the slip of paper tucked in with clippings from the Buffalo Evening News and handwritten recipes for Baked Cheese and Shrimp (Ruth Holmwood), Chicken Divan (Nell Fitzgerald) and Quick Oatmeal Cookies (Susie Butler Hoak). I do know Susie, but the not the others. Nevertheless, I imagine they’d like to know that their legacy lives on.
I stared at the johnny cake recipe for a moment. It was written in Mom’s own hand, so like my own, and had a big ink blot at the corner. I grinned as I suddenly wondered if anyone even knew what an ink blot was anymore. And then I thought of my own recipe collections—at least the current ones, which are computer printouts stuck in an office file keeper on the counter along with some directories and other odds and ends of paper. How sad, I thought, that we may be seeing the last of handwritten recipe cards. If I want someone’s recipe, it will most often show up in an email or a link to Allrecipes.com. Sure, it works, but it’s not quite the same, is it?
Another thought is that recipes have changed over the years. They’ve been sliced, riced, diced into mere shadows of their former selves in an effort to remove all trace of fat, sugar and salt. And often, taste. Good for most things, I guess, but sometimes if it ain’t broke, it’s probably a sin to try and fix it.
A few years ago, I was at our daughter’s house for Thanksgiving, ready to make my famous pumpkin muffins, courtesy of my tattered and stained Betty Crocker cookbook. Suddenly, I realized I’d forgotten to bring either the book or a copy of the recipe. No problem, I thought. I’ll just go online and get it at the Betty Crocker web site. Well, they did have a recipe, all right, but it was a poor substitute. It, too, had been “perfected.” Now I don’t take any chances. I have it on my iPod, my iPad and my computer. And I still have the cookbook, too.
Maybe we ought to have a national Send a Recipe Day, and what better time to do it would be just before Thanksgiving? I am going right now to the kitchen and write out my pumpkin muffin recipe and send it to someone. Not sure who, at the moment. But there are plenty of people who will be glad to get it. On second thought, maybe I’ll send a few. Are you with me?
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!