Over the weekend, I went searching through my recipe box for the cheesecake recipe I was going to make.
Now, I know what you are all thinking. The food writer’s recipe box must be a categorized, alphabetized, color-coded, collated, professional collection. (OK, that’s what I hope you are all thinking.)
Unfortunately, that’s as far from reality as possible. My recipe box is just that — a paper box. It does have a pretty lid with fruits and berries on it. But other than the lid — which is broken at the corners and mended with tape — it’s just a box. No order, no categories, no alphabetizing. Most folks would see this mass of disorganization and shudder.
There are recipes, plenty of them, in all shapes and sizes — clipped from boxes, newspapers, magazines, printed from the Internet and handwritten. But there are also receipts from cookware purchases, the user’s manual for my food processor, some prayer cards from funerals, a magazine photo of Princess Diana sporting a beautiful haircut that I once had my stylist duplicate, and at the very bottom, a copy of the guest list from my wedding. That last one surprised even me.
As recipe boxes go, it’s the junk drawer.
But inside I always seem to find what I’m looking for and usually a whole lot more. It is a treasure trove of memories of cooks I have known — friends, family, neighbors — who all contributed in some small way to the cook I am today.
There is Mrs. Richards’ Peanut Butter Cookies. She was the mother of our next-door neighbor, and worked at the cosmetics counter of the local drugstore selling Coty’s face powder to the city’s finest old ladies. I’m not sure I ever knew her first name, but I’ve been making her cookies for years.
My mother, sister, grandmothers and aunts are all there.
But there is also Anne Hammond, who was our longtime neighbor and my mother’s dear friend. Mrs. Hammond was an excellent seamstress, and every August, my mother would interrupt our play and march us down the block to Mrs. Hammond’s house to have our school uniforms hemmed.
Normally, I liked going to her house because Mrs. Hammond was an avid collector of roosters and chickens. Every shelf and wall of her kitchen was filled with colorful hens of all shapes and sizes and I would sit there counting them to see if she had added any more since my last visit.
This trip, however, I dreaded. My sister and I would stand in her dining room in the summer swelter, while she measured and pinned her way around our hems. The pins would prick at my knees and the 10 minutes it took to finish the task seemed like I was standing at attention for hours.
My recipe box is blessed with her chicken paprikash and dumplings, and my life was blessed by her colorful sayings.
“Someday,” she would smile, “I’ll dance at your wedding.” (She did, even though she was 84 at the time.)
“When you are Hungarian,” she told my sister and me, “you always start with a stick of butter and an onion. But when you’re Italian, you always start with a clove of garlic and some olive oil.”
And yes, her paprikash recipe starts with a stick of butter and an onion, chopped.
Our next-door neighbor, Josephine Ruberto, is well-represented. The first fried squash blossom I ever ate came from Mrs. Ruberto’s skillet and was grown in her husband Patsy’s garden. If you couldn’t tell from her name, she was from Italy and on Sunday mornings, you could hear her through her open basement windows singing along with the Italian radio hour while she cooked Sunday dinner.
My recipe box contains her formula for the croutons she put in her wedding soup, some assorted cookies and her Easter bread.
With today being the traditional Memorial Day on the calendar, it seems like the perfect time to reflect on these cooks who have contributed so much to my own culinary heritage. I don’t need to visit the cemetery to remember them. All I need to do is to lift the lid on my recipe box and start sifting through the memories.
Lisa Abraham can be reached at 330-996-3737 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @akronfoodie and read her blog at www.ohio.com/blogs/lisa.