Posted by Kerry McFall December 3, 2018
Christmas is upon us, time to make fudge and cutout cookies, so out comes the old recipe box. ‘Dusty’ doesn’t do justice to the accumulation of oily residue and fingerprints and smudges on it as I wrestle it out of its position as honorary bookend on the cookbook shelf, resulting in the usual cascade of books and 3-ring binders off the shelf and onto the floor. Dang.
“Pandora’s Recipe Box,” mixed media by Kerry McFall
I pry up the lid of the box, and there is “Kerry from Dad 87” etched into the inside top with a woodburning tool. He made it for me during his Woodworker Phase, one of many oak-and-walnut projects, including my pepper mill. Utilitarian and one-of-a-kind, both my Dad and the box.
The box is packed so full that opening it makes me wonder what keeps all those cards and papers from literally jumping out. The dividers, printed in my hand-writing on blue cardboard, are frayed and stained. Given the accessibility of recipes via the Internet, this collection doesn’t get as much use as it did back in the day, so it’s been several years since I really paid any attention to it, but I’m on a mission: the fudge recipe on the back of the marshmallow crème jar just doesn’t look right. Didn’t the marshmallow jar used to be way bigger? Wasn’t it the large can of evaporated milk, not this itty bitty thing? I need to find my old “original” recipe, THE recipe that actually results in creamy, delectable fudge. As opposed to gooey chocolate sauce with walnuts sunk to the bottom…
As my fingers “walk” through the categories (two of my favorites are “Front Burner” and “Tea Treats”), I am remembering when I discovered the hard way that just because my mother gave me A recipe didn’t mean she had given me THE recipe. I had tried for years to make Parker House Rolls during the holidays, but they were never as light and fluffy as hers, which I couldn’t understand because she had copied the recipe for me. And then one day, she said smugly, “Well, I see you still can’t make them melt in your mouth like mine!” The light dawned. I compared the two handwritten 3 x 5 cards. She had written “1 package yeast” on my card, hers said “2 pkgs yeast.” She had written “let rise” on mine, hers said “let rise, punch down, knead lightly, let rise again.” Oh for crying out loud!
I put that memory behind me with a low growl, and finally coax out the recipe in Mom’s handwriting that says fudge. And sure enough, the label on the jar is different in several places from this old yellow chunk of legal pad where she copied the recipe, so I’m going to have to call my sister-in-law. She’s got Mom’s old originals now… but then I realize that squeezing the recipes back into the box is not going to happen unless I get rid of some of the never-used bulk. In my head I hear the words to “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie…” echoing: “…he’s probably going to want a glass of milk…”
But it can’t be helped, they just refuse to be jammed back into the box. I start at the back. There is the 3-hole-punch version – with hand-drawn X-rated illustrations – of “Fricasseed Boar Balls” from a once-young man who shall not be named… I’ve always thought this could be used to great advantage in a blackmail effort given his affinity for public office, so clearly that has to go back in the box! There is a page of graph paper with a recipe for a potato casserole, in French, from someone named Devismes – nope, recycle. But I wonder who that was? Is that the family I stayed with on my first trip to France? A double-folded card spells out a complex process for a casserole from the mother of the husband of my husband’s ex-girlfriend, with a sweet note at the end: “When you take the first bite, think of Ursula and Christmas 1993 in Corvallis”. Aww, what a sweetheart.
And so it goes. I find my long lost recipe for Hot Buttered Rum squirreled away under Vegetables. There are pages and pages of typed gourmet entries (which means the main ingredient was cream of mushroom soup) from my Aunt Muriel, who loved to entertain – I never tried most of them so they go into the recycling, but a few are now family classics. Most of the recipes are on 3 x 5 cards in the handwriting of the cooks who shared them with me, with unintentional samples of most of the ingredients spattered here and there – those are very hard to part with. Ultimately I was able to recycle just enough so that I can close the box – but this little exercise was thought provoking. When I google a recipe, it comes with no memories, fond or otherwise. It comes with no evidence of little helpers in the kitchen with peanut butter on their fingers, no notes from friends, no reminders of co-workers who organized recipe exchanges, no clippings from ancient newspapers with ads on the back for honey at $.59. It’s faster, yes, but it is SO not personal.
I wipe down the recipe box, and try not to think about how much shelf space I could regain if I took the time to sort through the cookbooks before I smash the books back into a row and wedge the box back on the shelf. The fudge ingredients are calling my name… I’ll save the cookbook shelf “weeding” for another Mouse and another cookie on another day. Besides, I had to write about this while it was fresh in my head, and after I make the fudge I want to do a watercolor of all the ingredients and the recipe box… Time Flies!
(No surprise, finished the painting, still haven’t gotten around to the fudge or the cookies or the cookbook shelf. What the hey – Christmas is still WEEKS away, right?)