The Unwritten History Told in Recipes

Thursday, October 06, 2011
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.

What story can you connect with a favorite recipe?

by LuAnn Schindler. Graphic by LuAnn Schindler. Read more of her work at her website.


Unknown said...

What a wonderful post, LuAnn!
This fits so well with celebrating Thanksgiving here in Canada.
Recipes in card form, binders, books all play a huge part in culture wherever we live.
They truly are a treasure trove of family and country.
Thanks for this share!
Little Women is a story I recall--the Christmas feast that they shared with a less fortunate family stayed in my mind.

Robyn Chausse said...

Four years ago my eldest sister returned home with her eledest daughter--we had not seen or heard from them in 25 years--since the daughter was a child.
The first thing this young lady did was walk into my parent's kitchen, open the pantry and sniff. Quizzical looks went round the room. Then quietly she said. "Yep, smells like Grandma's." Of course, a few of us had to go sniff...
To this day I don't know what the scent is that she associates with Grandma's pantry. But I do know that cooking, and secret recipes, have been my parent's way of celebrating and showing love of offering that stayed in this girls memory through all those years.

LuAnn Schindler said...


I completely relate to the "sniffing" episode. At my grandparents' house, the "mud room" always smelled like Zest soap. The kitchen - warm vanilla. Thirteen years after they moved to town, I moved into their farm house. The scent was still there. And now my parents live in my grandparents' house in town, and it's the same, too.

Juliann said...

This is such a nostalgic reminder of what used to be. I can't remember the last time someone gave me a hand-written recipe. I've gotten a few computer printouts, or someone directs me to the website where they found the recipe. But a hand-written recipe on a note card that fits into a recipe box? It's been at least 20 years!

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