What Your Recipe Box Says About You

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This is it. The perfect time. What better distraction as I continue to dodge a deadly virus, mourn those who could not, worry about my country’s soul and find comic relief in links that I obsessively impose on friends and family?

Yes, now is the time to take advantage of virtual house arrest by cleaning out my recipe file — files, plural, to be accurate, as old as they are chaotic. There they are on a kitchen bookshelf, in fat loose-leaf binders overflowing with yellowing newspaper clippings, computer printouts, fading photocopies, handwritten recipes on 3-by-5 index cards — tangible reminders of a happier era.

What a mess. I have been meaning to bring order to my recipes for years, urged to cull them by my orderly husband, or to digitize them by my equally well-ordered stepdaughter, who has volunteered to help me, and I know she would.

But this is my job. I will do it. Or will I?

Confession: I have tried before. Many times. I start. And I stop. Here is what happens, every time:

The recipes are either loose, or mounted on pages and preserved behind plastic in old photo albums. I turn a page and read a disintegrating recipe for “Spritz” — butter cookies, the kind that require a cookie press. Scrunched at the bottom, beneath the ingredients, I had written, “Mrs. Spirt.”

Mrs. Spirt! Rosina Spirt was the mother of my good friend Beverly, and she always had a plump cookie jar filled with those rich delicacies. Beverly and I snacked on them after school while we dreamed of our futures. She would be a doctor (she is). I would be a journalist (I am). Mrs. Spirt gave me her recipe one day, and I baked those cookies for years, until work and other obligations put a stop to that. Now instead of baking them, I visit their recipe.

ImageThe author has held on to a 1972 recipe for buttermilk-glazed pineapple-carrot cake from The New York Times Magazine.
Credit…Ryan Liebe for The New York Times. Food Stylist: Simon Andrews.

Oh, and here are those instructions for pineapple-carrot cake, from an ancient issue of The New York Times Sunday Magazine. One had to keep paper copies in those days. No Google. Not that I have made that carrot cake in decades. I got too busy. But I might try it again.

Then there’s Julia Child. Butter and wine and all those steps! Her coq au vin so charmed me that I made it for years. Fourteen ingredients (plus spices). Hours from start to finish. Measuring, browning, parboiling, sautéing, simmering, waiting. Really? Julia Child was sublime. But would I follow her coq au vin drill today? I doubt it. Times have changed, I have changed.

Truth is, my go-to TV cook in those days wasn’t Child anyway, but Graham Kerr — the hyper British chef who called himself the “Galloping Gourmet.” He would whip up unorthodox dishes playing fast and loose with measurements and ingredients, and if the result was not a classic, it was more fun to make. I still remember that one for a leg of lamb with orange and apple juice, a welcome departure from the standard lamb recipe with (ugh) mint jelly. I’d love to try it again, but only a torn remnant survives in my recipe collection.

I do still have the recipe for my mother’s “Casserole Dish” — a concoction of noodles, cheese, mushrooms, onions, olives and then some. “From mother, 1961.”

Casseroles were a big thing in the 1950s and early ’60s — easy and inexpensive, if a bit gloppy. My brother loved that dish, though Mom did not make it that often. She tried to cook healthy food, or what we then thought was healthy: roast beef, roast chicken, London broil. She made a great sauce for spaghetti (not pasta, thank you), given to her when she was a newlywed by an Italian-American landlady. Mom never wrote down that recipe, and though I know it included chuck steak and Italian peeled tomatoes, I have never been able to reproduce it. A loss, but one that, in a way, heightens my memories of those special spaghetti dinners.

Looking at these pages, I am reminded that my cooking focus evolved over time, reflecting our country’s changing tastes. Less (or no) butter, more olive oil. Less meat, more fish, fresh salads and al dente vegetables. West Lake fish soup, a Mark Bittman New York Times recipe low on fat and high on healthy ingredients. Recipes from Oprah Winfrey — for oven-baked “fried” potatoes (coat in egg whites, salt, bake). Salads, turkey loaf instead of meatloaf, low fat, low cholesterol, low sugar.

Marian Burros of The Times would run a “nutritional analysis” with many of her recipes, and I studied them like a student prepping for the LSATs. Instead of cookies or cakes, I made sugar-free baked apples. I roasted autumn vegetables sprinkled with salt and drizzled with olive oil. I made simple poached salmon. For a cold summer soup, I picked a pile of sorrel that grows like a weed in my Fire Island garden.

Fire Island, where my future husband and I spent our first summer together. There, I cooked with the freshest ingredients I could grow or find. Salads. Sautéed Swiss chard and bok choy. Chilled blueberry soup. And blueberry pie, both featuring wild berries.

My friend Sarah and I used to brave deer ticks and poison ivy to pick those Fire Island blueberries — tart, winy and now gone, the bushes uprooted to make way for new houses. Cultivated blueberries do not cut it, so I no longer make that pie or soup. But I still have those recipes, to remind me of a special time in my life.

Which is the point, of course.

I have not and never will clean out, digitize or otherwise impose order on my recipe files, because each handwritten list of ingredient, each flaking newspaper cutting, is part of my story. I look at a recipe and memories come flooding back, as they do for a friend who, trying to declutter, was loath to part with even one of her many ramekins. She was not obsessed with ramekins. She was obsessed with the memories attached to each one.

This relentless virus, while giving me the enforced time to finally impose discipline on my recipe collection, has also reinforced my resolve to do no such thing. My recipes tell stories. If they were pared down, edited and orderly, my memories would be, too. No way. I like them just as they are.

Recipe: Buttermilk-Glazed Pineapple-Carrot Cake

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