My mother and I have been sorting things.
At 96, she doesn’t see so well any more, my dad has become a bit forgetful and so in preparation for a move to assisted living, we’ve been going through what’s accumulated over nearly 75 years of marriage.
Last summer, the older grandchildren and I helped her paw through boxes of china, farm records, and family treasures—labeling some, exclaiming at others, tossing a few. In the fall, she and I went through trunks of family history: graduation programs, old photos, souvenirs from a someone’s 1912 trip to California, the Purple Heart awarded to the uncle who was lost at Guadalcanal long before I was born. Again, we labeled and exclaimed, but this time we threw out nothing and shed a few tears. Another generation can deal with these mementos.
On wintry afternoons lately, we have been going through her recipe boxes. There are three: one heavy wooden box of Basic Recipes she had when she was studying to become a home economics teacher in the 1930’s; one small, decorated box from the fifteen winters or more spent in sunny Florida; and, a long file box containing everything else.
We went through the file box first, because that’s what she wanted to do. I started at the front-with the divider marked “Appetizers”, and one by one, pulled out recipes and put them behind the right label. I read each recipe to her, and any comments that she had noted on the card, and as I read, she usually remembered the occasion, the event or the person who made the dish first. We talked about “Audrey’s Brown Bread”—and reminisced about dear Audrey with the houseful of children and the kind heart. Recipes for “Macaroni Salad for 150” or “Swiss Steak for a Crowd”, brought stories of aproned ladies baking pies and mashing potatoes in the floor industrial sized electric mixer for dinners sponsored by the Presbyterian Church. There were recipes from her early-married life on the farm—“Liver Loaf” and “Pickled Tongue”; we discussed my dad’s family when we found “Mother McNinch’s Gingerbread” and her own mother’s love for anything containing cranberries. Some of the recipes were handwritten on the back of an envelope; one had a grocery list on the backside, another an assortment of items needed from the hardware. We found a few letters, too—sweet reminders of Great Aunt Alice and cousin Florence’s third birthday—along with Aunt Al’s sugar cookie recipe and directions for Florence’s dad’s famous pickles. It took many afternoons to go through the whole box. I think we both purposely took our time at it, too, because there was a lot more going on than just recipe sorting.
The small green box from all the winters in Florida showed me another aspect of my mother and dad’s life. If the first box, the longest, was a history of family and daily experiences, this small, bright box was a record of retirement, relaxation, friends and fun. In the first box, there were three cards behind “Appetizers”. There were many, many more in the Florida box-dips, snacks, hors d’oeuvres. I found “Sarah’s Great Potatoes”—“…perfect,” my mother said, “for New Year’s Eve potlucks.” There were at least three dozen recipes for using oranges in various ways, and possibly the same number, or more, for using lemons. “Citrus Slaw”, “Lemon Fluff”, “Frosty Orange Pie”. This little box also contained duplicates of my mother’s favorite recipes from the first box—familiar dishes to make in their home away from home. I also discovered that she began to gather recipes using yogurt, and those containing fewer calories and lower fat. There was no longer a need for hearty noon meals for a farm family; lighter lunches were the fare in the sunny South. The duplicates I set aside– for a granddaughter, perhaps?—the others, I added to the bigger file box.
The last box we tackled was the least amount of work. Some of the cards were out of place, true, but they were numbered, so easy to put back in order. This wooden box is truly a Basic Recipe Box. It begins with an introduction from the Head of Food and Nutrition Department at Iowa State College, copyright 1937, noting a “…need felt by the students of Iowa State College of a working tool for use in foods courses.” It goes from this, to a list of abbreviations used, directly to “Beverages”. No “Appetizers” in basic foods, apparently.
Each section in this heavy box has a list of contents, with blank spaces for adding more. Card No. 8 (Section 2) is a description of the Baking of Breads, which leads right into “Making Toast” (with variations). This recipe file hasn’t been used nearly as much, nor as recently, as the others. It’s tidy and organized, although a little dusty—much like a kitchen that’s no longer quite so cluttered from daily use.
It’s a handy file, though, for a beginning homemaker: from the recipe for Breakfast Chocolate, to Eggs/Cheese, up to Measures-which explains how to measure and level, as well as giving the approximate measure of 1 lb. of food material (3 to 4 potatoes, 40 to 50 average prunes, 4 cups flour). Beyond this, there’s a large section for Preservation – explaining conditions and principles. (“Bacteria need for growth-food, moisture and warmth. By removing one of these conditions, the growth is checked.”) This was the Depression Era, remember—anything extra was dried/canned/pickled/fermented for another time—and home freezers weren’t available.
The Basic Recipe file ends with “Vegetables”, just as the other files have done. Again, there’s a difference: the large, daily file had newspaper clippings explaining how to use excess zucchini as well as four separate recipes for “Scalloped Corn”; other than “Zesty Stuffed Tomatoes”, the Florida “Vegetables” section was entirely filled with potato recipes (“Crunchy Topped”, Cheesy Baked”, “Easy Scalloped”). The wooden file, under the same topic, has General Directions (Card No. 236: “Old potatoes have improved flavor if soaked ½ hr. before cooking.”) Ten more cards present vegetables alphabetically arranged, noting preparation for cooking details and estimated time for boiling….beginning with Artichokes and ending with Turnips. (Who’d heard of zucchini in 1937?) My mother suggested selling this box—or throwing it out. I can’t do that, so we agreed that it would go to yet another granddaughter.
These recipe box-sorting sessions left me emotionally exhausted. It’s hard to explain what reliving more than three-quarters of a century of a woman’s life—a well-loved woman’s life—is like. We began the journey when she was a college student—unaware and uncertain of the future. We talked and shared recipes through the years of World War II, when she taught home economy to housewives rationing sugar, growing victory gardens and pressure canning on kerosene stoves. Up through the years as a mother, farmer’s wife—the church dinner/harvest meal times—when summer meant wash tubs full of peas, long hours husking, shelling, snipping, and slicing, crocks of pickles and hot kitchens—when relaxing meant picking buckets of berries or tent camping next to a stream. On into middle age, when work beyond the home resumed and grandchildren arrived. There are recipes for “Easy-To-Roll Sugar Cookies”, along with those for healthy soups, crock-pot meals, and “Master Mixes” for quick suppers. Zucchini and various herbs-seasonings beyond salt, pepper and parsley for garnish- found their way into the family’s diet, too. As life moved along, so did the recipes—there were fewer using beef, but more with chicken—lots of casseroles and not as many aspics and molded salads. The retirement years—with the need for two recipe boxes—one for summers in the cabin in the northern woods, the other for busy winters in Florida. Barbecues, punch, snacks—many now marked “lo-cal”. Finally, the years spent close to home—back up north for good. The cassette tape with my dad’s voice reading the favorite recipes for her to follow—lacking sight, she still found a way to be a cook and homemaker.
This sorting project turned out to be much more than putting cookie recipes behind the “Cookies” divider, and punch under “Beverages”. The closer we came to the end of the card files, the slower I went. I don’t want the story to end.
It won’t, of course. My mother’s days of cooking and baking may have come to an end—with the new living arrangements, meals are prepared for the residents. But, I’ve realized her purpose in having me help her sort through the boxes was not just to organize and file. It was so I could share a glimpse into the life she has led. I’ve learned new stories, and gathered new recipes for my own journey. My mom and I have shared some delightful afternoons, a lot of laughter, and many, many memories. As my dad dozed in his recliner, I was able to relive, with her, all the years of their marriage.
A few days ago, I wrote a bit about this project on the Green Circle Grove facebook page. After several sentences, I knew there was much more to the story, so I ended by saying I needed to write a blog post about it.
I’ve discovered there’s much more than a blog post here. I’ll have to write a book.
Elma’s “Brownie Pudding”
1 cup flour 2 Tbs. cocoa 2 tsp. baking powder
½ cup milk ½ tsp. salt ½ tsp. vanilla
¾ cup sugar 2 Tbs. fat, melted*** ¾ cup nuts
¾ cup brown sugar ¼ cup cocoa 1 ¾ cup hot water
Sift flour, baking powder, salt, sugar, and cocoa. Add milk, fat, vanilla. Mix until smooth. Add nuts. Pour into 8” greased pan. Mix brown sugar and cocoa, sprinkle over batter. Pour hot water over entire batter. Bake 45 minutes at 350 degrees.
***I suppose when this recipe was first used, “fat” may have been butter, or whatever was available in the farm kitchen. Later on, margarine was probably used. Today, I use coconut oil.
On the back of the card, it says “Yummy-Yum!!”