Tuesday, October 30, 2007

My Mother's Recipe File

Although my mother wasn’t much of a cook when I got older, in the early days of her marriage, she loved to cook and entertain. The evidence I have of this is in part the stories she used to tell me of having people over, and in part in the accordion recipe file I have that belonged to her. This file is easily 35 or 40 years old, and its sides are split, not unlike the bellows of a real accordion that has seen better days. On the front of it is a colored sketch of some fruit—grapes, peaches, a pear, some grape leaves, and the word RECIPES is in a rather narrow, austere typeface. It has an “aged” tint to it, which when it was new probably made it look charming and old fashioned, but now makes it look as though it had tea or coffee (or both) spilled on it repeatedly over the last 30 years. The picture and word on the front are oriented for a “portrait” presentation; I presume that the assumption was that the file would be stored upright like a book. Because this file has been bulging with recipes for as long as I can remember, it has never passed so much as a day in an upright position. It has always rested on its bottom wherever it lived.

For a long time it lived on my mother’s desk in our kitchen in Washington, D.C. This was its primary residence for many years, perched on a shelf at the end of the kitchen that was remodeled in 1979 in a brown and white color scheme that my mother, always one to take things to extremes, even carried down to her pots and pans. Le Cruset no longer makes brown enameled cookware, for which I think we should all be grateful. I don’t recall her ever using the recipe file for reference. It seemed as though she had done all her recipe collecting in the late 1950s and early 1960s and was content to consider her collection complete. She bought cookbooks—I recall The Good Cook collection by Time-Life, which was organized by topic (Poultry, Vegetables, that sort of thing, and I remember the Desserts book had the least-appealing looking dessert in the whole world on the cover, a sort of anemic molded blancmange/pudding thing festooned with blackberries that was having a berry colored syrup poured over it) that she bought over the years, several of which disappeared along with a few thousand dollars and two catering partners in a business deal turned sour (if I’m not mistaken, these folks are now running a hot dog stand in Denver). The others in the series have disappeared over the years, gradually given away as I decided they were just too dated (now I kind of wished I’d kept them, just for the sake of amusement; I’ve seen a complete set sell for around $85 on eBay).

But the recipe file, though just as dated, I still have. In my early 20s, when I became interested in food and cooking, and felt the urge to move to the “adult” world of learning how to prepare my own food, instead of having it prepared for me, I began collecting recipes and adding them to this trove. I’m amused to go back and flip through those recipes, and see not only what my mother collected, but what I added to the collection. In both cases, there are some strange choices, either because of the culture of the times, or because of the idiosyncrasies of the collector. For example, I have many handwritten index cards for such basics as Hollandaise sauce. Evidently I was under the impression that I had one shot at finding a recipe for Hollandaise sauce, and since I had found it, I’d better write it down. I must not have realized that there was a Hollandaise sauce recipe in just about any basic cookbook I cared to open.

The folders are labeled with food categories. There’s nothing terribly remarkable about them: Appetizers, Soups & Sauces; Salads & Salad Dressings; Fish & Seafood; Meat; Poultry; Omelets & Casseroles; Vegetables; Cakes, Pies & Baked Goods; Desserts; Miscellaneous. Although my mother didn’t have much of a sweet tooth, the section on Cakes, Pies & Baked Goods is by far the fullest. In fact, my mother used to say that what she had was a “fat tooth”—her weakness was for fatty, salty things like potato chips and dip. Vegetables appear to have the least representation in this collection. In Miscellaneous we find such gems as a recipe pamphlet called “Cooking Made Easy with a WEAR-EVER Pressure Cooker” which is kind of interesting because to the best of my knowledge my mother never had a pressure cooker. I have a suspicion this booklet came from my grandmother, because the date in it is 1946, and in 1946 my mother was about ten years old. A tad young for experimenting with a pressure cooker, I’d say. But why did she keep it for so many years when we didn’t even own a pressure cooker? It’s too late to find out now.

And that’s the joy, and at the same time the frustration, of this recipe file. It even applies to the recipes that I cut or copied. Because I no longer have access to my mother, nor do I really have access to the person I was almost twenty years ago, I can only guess why certain recipes are saved, while others were discarded. In a couple of instances I might recall something about why I clipped a recipe, or see what the appeal was (or is), but there are so many that are just mysteries. My mother was a big gatherer of recipes, almost a chronicler of a form of cultural history, although she never did anything with her artifacts. I recall having seen in a scrapbook somewhere a handwritten note from some dinner guest she’d entertained in about 1960. It went something like this:

Dear Mrs. Langston,

I know you collect recipes and I thought I would send you this one for [whatever it was]. I hope you enjoy it.

All the best,

[The Author of the Note]

I don’t know where the recipe itself is (although it could be in the scrapbook, which is in a box in a storage locker, soon to be unearthed as we move into a new house). It could be in this very recipe file. Did she ever make it? What did she think of it? If she didn’t make it, why didn’t she? Why was she such a collector of recipes? Why am I? Is it genetic? You see how this could go.

As an exercise in, well lots of things, I am setting forth to make recipes from this file. I’ll work my way through from Appetizers, Soups & Sauces, back to Miscellaneous (don’t expect to see anything from the pressure cooker pamphlet any time soon). This will be a source of discovery about food, of course, and food of specific times (mostly the 1960s, 1970s, and into the early 1990s). Along the way I expect to do some self-discovery, as well as learn a few things about my mother. I will, at the very least, speculate on some things about my mother, since I can’t really say with any confidence that I’ve unearthed her true motive, or thought behind any given selection.

I’ll be keeping a record of this experiment over at mymothersrecipefile.blogspot.com. I’ll still be posting here, but on a weekly basis I’ll be selecting a choice tidbit from the recipe file. Then I’ll make it and (try to) photograph it, and do a write up of it. I must offer these caveats at the outset as regards the photography: first, I’m not a professional food photographer (you probably already knew that), nor do I have a very good camera. Second, if you’ve ever flipped through cookbooks or pamphlets like the WEAR-EVER Pressure Cooker booklet, you know quite well how food was styled in those days (and if you’re not familiar with it, check out The Gallery of Regrettable Food. Actually, check it out even if you are familiar with it, because you’ll laugh yourself sick—but I digress.) In any event, the question must be asked, did food photographs look like that because they were taken in grainy black and white, and styled by people with zero talent? Or did they look like that because that’s what food looked like? I can’t say, but I will say that if it’s the latter, be prepared to be underwhelmed by my pictures. They may not be great to begin with, but if they’re mediocre pictures of weird or unappetizing foods, I hereby absolve myself of all liability.

Expect to see the first post early next week. I’m torn between Liptauer and Mushroom Hors d’Oeuvres. The mushroom hors d’oeuvres are by far the more palatable, but the liptauer has more humor value. So we shall see.

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