Recipe Box Stories

Most women had a recipe box. Though not completely gone, now you are likely to find women over 50 or 60 keep such a thing. The recipes themselves are cherished by cooks. After all, cooks of a different generation hold the recipes – whether in the head or written down.

But the recipe box is where recipes are written down. The contents of the recipe box might be used or never used. The recipes could be old family ones, gathered from friends, friends of friends, relatives, relatives of relatives, newspapers, magazines, cookbooks, and even the internet. They might be in someone else’s hand. But the recipes stay in the recipe box.

The box contents tell something of the person who keeps it: the way they organize themselves, the kind of cook they are or were, their favourite recipes all splattered with oil and crusty. It tells a story of who the box belonged to or who it belongs to.

My Own Box

The box I got (and I don’t know how I came by it) came with index cards and alphabetical dividers – A, B, C, and so on. My dividers are mostly empty because I couldn’t figure out how to organize the recipes – B for Butter Cake or C¬† for Cakes? Also, I would have to carry on alphabetizing them. Why? When the effort is transcribing the recipe. The box is lucky to have it at all.

My recipes are shoved in behind the ABC dividers and all mixed up. Every time I want the miso soup recipe I have to look for it.

If a recipe came out of a newspaper, it was probably clipped and ended up being scrunched up. I was never so lucky to have it pasted onto a blank index card or transcribed by typewriter onto one (like my career aunt).

Many of my recipes came out of the ‘woman’s section’ of a newspaper. I suspect many women used this source. See something you like and clip it or transcribe it.

The section of this part of the newspaper was unofficially called the ‘woman’s section’. Now it’s called the ‘Style’ or the something else section. It’s an updated version of the way women care about stuff – jobs and careers, schools, make-up, books, celebrities and, of course, food. There are still some recipes to clip but why bother if it, or something similar, is online. Everything you could want to know about food (right or wrong), including cooking it, is online. You can look anything up with lightning speed. Why bother with a recipe box? They are quaint, a throwback to a pre-digital age, like snapshots I waited for from the drugstore.

My Dead Relatives’ Boxes

My grandmother on my mother’s side never kept a recipe box. She mostly wrote in her 1915 Fannie Farmer cookbook in her handwriting. Like the recipe for getting rid of bedbugs using sulphuric acid and a note saying it was dangerous (it was 1915 and she did pioneer on the barren Alberta prairie). Or the recipe for constipation, which was prunes, figs, raisins, coriander seeds and senna leaves. Senna leaves taste awful, but how would they do the job properly if they didn’t?

She kept using that cookbook to put her recipes in well into her 80s. But they were gestures, by that time her interest waned, like it does for the elderly. She was 90 by the time she didn’t have to cook anything, though she may have wanted to just so she could taste the way she made something. Taste is a powerful thing.

Her daughter, my career aunt, didn’t cook. She did, however, have a recipe box. Her box was full of the stuff that was never made – that I experienced anyway. But like I said, it was extremely well organized. And it did have her signature party dish – The Cheese Ball. This was just gussied up cream cheese with nuts and finely chopped red pepper and some other things, rolled into a ball and served with crackers, which were probably on sale (she lived a lifetime of frugality, but she did save enough to take an ocean liner to Europe before there were airplanes).

My other aunt (of the same mother), did cook. She also had the requisite recipe box. They seem to be recipes that she acquired¬† once she retired. One of my aunt’s recipes that I’ve transcribed to my own box and even made, was a fusion recipe, a zucchini soup. It had flavours of apples and curry. It was probably out of a Canadian newspaper. The woman’s section.

She did everything like she was always around although she never was. She was a diplomat in foreign countries and was assigned a cook who usually only spoke that language and cooked very well. I suspect (but can’t ask) that there were no recipes so that my aunt watched the housekeeper’s cooking very closely and learned. My aunt could do many things, just things we never needed.

My Mother was the youngest of that grandmother’s children. Mum was the best cook (and I’m not just saying that) but had a skinny recipe box. But she did have one. Like her mum, she was a cookbook and cooking magazine kind of person except she didn’t put everything in one place. She kept no notations in the books or in her box. The family baking that she made every Christmas were not in her recipe box. They were everywhere else. They were written down though and she dug them out from wherever when she needed them.

I collected all of it when she died, including her skinny recipe box.

The Box That Will Go On

One thing a person would learn by looking at my box is that I am not a baker. That’s why I have lots of baking recipes. They would also learn that I am not a fussy cook – no French or Chinese food or Lady Baltimore cakes in my recipes.

Maybe the recipe box only tells one thing about someone but it’s insight into she is/was. Don’t lose her.