When someone you love dies, their cookbooks and recipe collections can be a great comfort. Reading and recreating those recipes brings you into a communion that defies the finality of death. But what happens when you inherit the recipe box of someone you didn’t necessarily love, someone who often infuriated you?
When my husband’s mother Nell died at the age of 76, it fell to us to empty her house. She had a great deal of stuff jammed into a small house in a small town in Texas and there was not much we could take back to our small apartment in New York City.
Nell and I had not been close and had not agreed about much, but our worst clashes had been about food. She had never been particularly kind about my cooking, announcing on one occasion that she wasn’t going to “choke down” a piece of a pie I had made especially for her. I had tolerated this tensely for a few years, but when she arrived at our house a week after I had given birth and criticized my salad dressing I blew up. In my half-hearted apology, I blamed postpartum emotions, but it reminded me how much I assume that a person’s cooking is part of their identity. Love me; love my vinaigrette.
I am a cultural historian with a particular interest in food and an even more particular interest in American cookbooks. So I was curious about what kinds of cookbooks we would find and what we might want to keep. Most people in my family have large cookbook collections that reflect different eras or interests in their lives. In my mother-in-law’s house, however, there was just one cookbook — a mouse-nibbled copy of the 1951 edition of the Joy of Cooking. It was lying on the floor, hidden under a shelving unit that housed the microwave. One glance into the cabinets full of canned soup and packages of crackers made sense of the book’s location. No need for a recipe when you’re reheating soup for dinner. Might as well feed Irma Rombauer to the rodents.
On that same microwave stand, however, I also found a wooden index card box with rounded corners, darkened by time in a kitchen, slightly begrimed and adorned with a red label, proclaiming it, “Nell’s Exotic and Quixotic Recipes.” I snorted in disbelief. Nell had been consistently hostile to anything she deemed exotic, applying her favored term “different,” to anything unfamiliar (like my cooking). Quixotic, too, was a word I would not have associated with her. She was impulsive — that was true, and stubborn as a mule — but there was nothing idealistic or visionary in her nature. She was a consummate deflater of whimsy wherever she found it.
Born in the Great Depression into a family that struggled to make do, she had been raised in Texas and California, then joined the Army at 18. There she met my husband’s father, Pete. They married and had one child. Moving for Pete’s career, they lived in Washington, D.C.; Kalamazoo, Michigan; and Columbia, South Carolina. She was the family’s primary cook, but, as her son remembers it, brought little creativity or enthusiasm to the position.
I wanted to know what was in the recipe box, but I also wanted to think about it before I opened it. Would the food win me over? Would it reveal to me a person different from the one I thought I knew? Perhaps I would find truly exotic and quixotic recipes that spoke of a time when she might have been a more joyful and adventurous person.
I also wondered if my background in food history would enable me to predict the contents of the box. I knew her age, ethnicity, class, and upbringing, and I also knew the history of American foodways during her lifetime, so I probably knew her culinary context much better than she had known it herself. At the very least I might learn what Nell had considered acceptable salad dressing.
I made some guesses. I assumed that I would find casseroles because these were staple foods in 1980s middle class white households. It seemed likely that the casseroles would be assembled from a combination of pre-packaged and unpackaged ingredients — cream of mushroom soup with ground beef for example. This was a prevalent technique during the years when she cooked for her family and I thought it would also suit her disinterest in kitchen work. From personal experience, I was sure there would be a lot of desserts, because she had had a powerful sweet tooth. A few national trends that I would look out for were health food, French food, and Tex-Mex. This last one seemed especially likely since Nell had been proud of her Texas heritage.
Having made my guesses, I opened the box. In Nell’s collection there were approximately 100 recipes. Many of the recipes were written onto index cards, but there were also recipes written on folded pages from notebooks and memo pads. The collection included some commercially produced recipe cards and a few recipes cut from boxes or taken from canned food labels. If she had started collecting recipes when she was married — in 1958 — and continued through the next 55 years of her life, 100 recipes seemed a rather paltry number. Again, one peek into the cupboards full of Campbell’s soups and Nabisco Saltines helps explain.
The recipes seemed to have been stuffed into the box at random, but as I sorted them, I found that they fell easily into three categories: savory, salad, and sweet. Entirely lacking were vegetable dishes, breads, and appetizers. There was considerable overlap between salad and sweets because many of her 17 salad recipes were of the “composed” kind featuring fruit, nuts and whipped cream. Each of the savory salad recipes included at least one, and frequently more than one, cooked item — potatoes or chicken or shrimp. None were of the leafy green variety except for one in which lettuce served as a bed for a shrimp salad. These composed salads were typical fare for European Americans in the first 50 years of the 20th century. While today when we hear the word “salad” we assume that it will be mostly fresh greens, before the 1960s salad comprised a much broader range and could serve as a filling meal (usually lunch) or as a side dish. Lettuce-only arrangements were less popular than salads like the “congealed cranberry salad” one friend head been kind enough to write up a recipe for.
The limited number of types of recipe in Nell’s collection suggested that she took a utilitarian approach to food, focusing primarily on family meals rather than on entertaining. Her 48 dessert recipes, however, made up almost half the entire collection, revealing that within her limited repertoire, the practical only barely predominated over the indulgent.
Most of the dessert recipes were rich, creamy, and gooey, but also very true to Nell’s style in that they were easy to make. Many of them came from advertisements in magazines and used pre-packaged goods to cut steps. One example is the “Amazing Coconut Cake,” a mixture of Bisquick, milk, margarine, shredded coconut, and sugar. After listing the ingredients and procedure, she noted, “makes its own crust.” What a relief that must have been.
There were quick mix cheesecakes, a “9-minute fresh fruit pie,” “easy peanut butter cookies,” and a “Peach Pie Alaska” made with Jell-O. I found myself irritated by this part of the collection. That’s just like her, I thought, wanting everything to be sweet and easy — like a child. Instead of making me hungry, the recipes reminded me of all the trouble we had had because she never made an effort to do things like take care of her health or manage her finances. The “striped delight,” a marriage of packaged pudding and cool whip seemed to evoke a whole maddening way of life.
Given our unfriendly relationship, one of the most interesting features of her collection was the group of recipes written by her own mother-in-law, who I knew she had not liked. Known as “Mom Johnson,” her mother-in-law had supplied nine recipes, all for dinner dishes. For Mom Johnson, it seems, cooking was the work of feeding families wholesome meals, while for Nell cooking could be more useful as a way to satisfy one’s own tastes.
Several of Mom Johnson’s recipes reference the Great Depression and another refers to rising food prices, indications that she thought purposefully about food in terms of economics as well as flavors. The ideal, exemplified in her Depression Hamburgers (which stretched a pound of ground beef by adding breadcrumbs but also included grated onion for flavor), was to get value and pleasure in balance.
Nell’s contrasting love of sweets, those emblems of indulgence, suggested to me the different ways in which the Depression shaped individual foodways. As an adult during hard times, Mom Johnson had had to learn to adapt to feed her family. But as a child of those times, denied treats, Nell might have developed a determination to compensate for that lack when she was grown up and in charge of her own kitchen.
Some of Mom Johnson’s recipes in Nell’s wooden box were surely written for her son, Nell’s husband, Pete. Perhaps Pete had asked for a few recipes or maybe his mother had sensed he would need them as he started out in married life. Given the gender expectations of their era, there is little chance she expected he would cook them himself. For Nell, the recipe which bore the advice “Pete loves this” may have been aggravating. Men’s palates held primacy then. A woman was expected to learn to cook to please her husband; to cook like his mother. A husband was not expected to develop a taste for his wife’s style of cooking.
It was a married man’s privilege to be fed what he liked, regardless of whether his wife enjoyed making it or eating it. My own mother had once bitterly recalled my father tactlessly saying that her lemon meringue pie was not as good as his mother’s and suggesting she get the recipe from her mother-in-law. The marriage did not last long; women in my family do not suffer culinary criticism gladly.
But for Nell, divorce was not the answer — the route to harmony was for a woman to cook what her husband liked to eat. I found an example of this when I asked my husband about a recipe for homemade yogurt that I had been surprised to find in the recipe box. It was from 1974, published in the Washington Post. As a food historian, the timing made sense to me— the health food trend of the 1970s brought yogurt to mainstream attention, especially in metropolitan areas. But the recipe’s appearance in Nell’s box clashed with what I knew of her tastes. “Did your mom like yogurt?” I asked. “No, but my dad did,” was his very revealing reply.
The “striped delight,” a marriage of packaged pudding and cool whip seemed to evoke a whole maddening way of life.
I began to see the recipes as divided into two additional categories. There were those dishes she had to cook and those she wanted to cook. The multiple ground beef casserole recipes that made up about half the savory category enabled Nell to recreate Pete’s childhood foodways for him, thus fulfilling her perceived responsibilities as a wife. Also in this category, however, were a notably large number of fish and shellfish recipes. These, I knew, from experience, were foods that she wanted to eat. Over the ten years I knew her, she was always in search of a place where she could order grilled shrimp — not something you find everywhere you go. Yet my husband did not remember eating much fish growing up, suggesting that she set aside this personal preference because Pete did not share it. The one fish recipe in the collection that my husband recognized from his childhood was Mom Johnson’s Salmon Patties. These call for canned salmon mixed with chopped celery, mayonnaise, and lemon rind. The mixture is formed into discs, rolled in either cornmeal or sesame seeds and fried. As a recipe the patties represented a compromise: fish for Nell and mom’s home cooking for Pete.
Desserts, on the other hand, were obviously recipes that appealed to Nell herself. A significant number were handwritten by other people, suggesting an appreciation of at least some other women’s cooking. Many of the dessert recipes were also collected from magazine ads and packaging, torn or cut out because they appealed so strongly in the moment. Eagle Brand milk supplied her with a fudge ribbon cake recipe, while Hellman’s and Sun-Maid teamed up to tempt her with the “Amazin’ Raisin Cake.”
Looking at Nell’s not very exotic or quixotic recipes, I began to see a collection that represented a life stretched between fulfilling responsibilities and seeking shortcuts to indulgence. Only two recipes fell outside my imposed categories and also fell outside the bounds of what I expected to find. That surprising yogurt recipe, and one for Fish House punch, a classic American punch dating back to the 18th century.
While the yogurt recipe seemed never to have been unfolded after it was first placed in the box, the punch recipe was stained and had many modifications scribbled on the card. In its own way, Fish House Punch — a combination of whiskey, brandy, sherry, and bourbon — was as surprising as yogurt. I had only ever known Nell as a teetotaler who kept the AA serenity prayer magnet on her fridge: “God grant me the serenity to accept things I cannot change…”
“Oh, that’s a famous recipe,” my husband told me. “They made that all the time for parties.” It had apparently been a favorite for entertaining until the 1980s when his parents abruptly stopped drinking. Why did the card remain? Maybe she simply never looked through her recipe box — the multiple identical recipes for cherry cheesecake (from the Borden Milk company) support this theory. Or it may have been that she had an impulse to use the box to record some of her past. The Fish House punch had been a central part of her social life, so the tattered recipe was worth preserving as a memento.
While the box recorded a personal history of taste, few of the major trends to sweep through American cookbooks in the postwar era made it into Nell’s collection. There was no whisper of Julia Child, and the only hint of the health food movement was that yogurt recipe and a zucchini bread recipe hand-written for her by a friend. Dieting fads did appear in a group of Weight Watchers recipes from the late 1980s. Nouvelle cuisine made a cameo appearance in the form of pasta primavera as interpreted by Weight Watchers. Mostly her recipes were simple and hearty. Her fish dishes were baked or in the form of chowder. Her dinners were reliable, not exciting.
Although my husband said that his mother had often cooked beef and bean chili, I did not find a chili recipe or anything else that could be called Tex-Mex in the recipe box. Probably Nell knew her chili recipe through experience and needed no guide for it, the way we tend to do with the recipes we associate most with ourselves. Some of the recipes in the box showed heavy use — Mom Johnson’s Meat Balls, for example — so I could be sure the box was not just a place to keep recipes she did not use.
As a sampling of her repertoire the box was both revealing and reaffirming of what I already knew. Given how little interested in cooking she was, Nell’s collection was a surprisingly accurate portrait of the woman. Bound to domestic duties, including the subordinate role of daughter-in-law, she also persisted in at least imagining catering to her own tastes. Because the recipes were not organized in any way, my first impression was that she had had no interest in them. But when I realized that they represented many different eras of her life, I recognized that she had exercised an archival impulse by keeping them, seeing food as a marker of times, places, and relationships, even if she did not keep them organized by these categories.
Tucked among the other older cards and folded pages was a recipe for French toast, printed for guests by the Brooklyn bed and breakfast where she stayed when I married her son in 2006. The memory of French toast served at this hotel had been tied to the memory of the event for her. Unfolding and refolding this recipe that I was sure she had never made, I felt no new sense of connection to her, but perhaps more understanding of the prevailing forces in her life and how a recipe box can capture the spirit even of someone for whom food was not love. •