A Recipe Box Life

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.

GCG-recipe box life

July 19, 1941

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. Recipe Box life GCGIn 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.recipe box life GCG 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”.Recipe Box Life GCG 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. recipe box life  GCGIt 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.

recipe box life GCG

“Easy To Roll” sugar cookies

recipe box life GCG

Learning to bake bread in Grandmother’s kitchen.

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.recipe box life GCG

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.

In the meantime, if you’re looking for something to warm up your kitchen with a wonderful smell; an easy, old-fashioned dish that’s comforting, chocolaty and not at all low-calorie…here’s…        Recipe Box Life GCG

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!!”


This post is shared with the Sunday Social February 15 and Simple Life Sunday #57.

The Patterns of My Life

I decided it’s time—past time, in fact—to clean the upstairs closet. The closet in the “spare room”—you know which one I mean. It’s the closet where you’ve stored all the boxes from the other closets and bedrooms, where the bits and pieces of your life that you just haven’t been able to toss away, have ended up.

Jennifer’s prom dress is there, and a hoop that went under another gown. There’s one half of a shelf devoted to yearbooks and notebooks full of formulas and dates. If I open those yearbooks now, I won’t get any further. Denise’s wedding headpiece is boxed up on the top shelf, next to a box of 4-H mementoes.

The special stuffed animals, books, children’s school papers, doll clothes and blankets were sorted some years ago.   Only two tubs remain. I can’t look in these right now either. Another box holds “dress-up” clothes—hats, costume jewelry, impossibly high-heeled shoes, a sparkly vest. These could be tossed, and yet….maybe there’s still a grandchild or two that will want to spend a rainy afternoon acting out a handwritten play.

Three bags of fiberfill. Did I forget I had some and buy more? Crates of fabric, a long roll of upholstery material, a bag of yarn, and … patterns.

I can throw these out.

I don’t make my own clothes anymore. These are old, old, old. Not my size and…

Oh look……

Here’s the pattern I used to make my wedding dress. Back in the late 1960’s, dresses were short and shapeless—with narrow sleeves that widened into flowing cuffs. I stitched up this white velvet creation on a Singer Featherweight in my college dorm room, after we’d driven nearly to Canada to find the right fabric and lace.GCG Patterns of My Life

A few years later, as barely-scraping-by young marrieds, I used this same pattern for maternity dresses.

…And here’s the pattern for the blue corduroy housecoat I spent cutting out one Sunday in 1974. The fabric was just the right weight to go over the old nightgown I’d packed in my “take to the hospital when I have the new baby” bag. I remember I had to keep stopping to rub my back, because bending over seemed to make it ache, and that 2 year old Denise had gone with her dad for a special trip on a fire truck….and they came home with a couple of baby ducks. Oh, the memories that keep coming as I look at this simple pattern…the realization later on that those back pains were coming with regularity and the housecoat would have to be finished after the new baby’s arrival…early the next morning. Patterns of My Life

Patterns for little girls’ warm flannel nightgowns, matching sparkly holiday jumpers….Halloween costumes…

The 4-H years! Here are the patterns for all those Dress Revue creations—I wonder how many stitches were taken out and replaced before these hit the runway? It seems now that every spring in the 1980’s was a rush to hem, edge stitch, press. I don’t think many of these outfits were ever worn publicly either—seems like they were put away until the summer county fair and then—they probably were outgrown. My thoughts move along the years in my mind…from gathered skirts and drawstring aprons…to lacey satin prom dresses and 3 piece suits…remembering all the patterns as the cute little girls with clumsy fingers grew into beautiful, precise young women.Patterns of My Life

HAHA! I remember struggling over this sports jacket…wide wale corduroy…one of the front panels had to be cut twice because the grain was going the wrong way. I suspect it was never worn much because the sleeves may have gone in the wrong way, too. It looked great on the hanger, though!Patterns of My Life

Oh! Here’s the pattern Jennifer used to make the sweatshirt for our Muppy dog! Or was it Denise that made it? So many memories….Green Circle Grove

The dress I wore for my best friend Sue’s wedding…dark blue calico with a matching bonnet. You can’t tell from the pattern just how many teeny-tiny pleats are in that bonnet. She wore linen, I remember, and we carried fall flowers..Patterns of My Life

And…the patterns for Denise’s wedding attendants….calico, too; buttons instead of pleats….matching vests for the men….19 years ago now.Green Circle Grove

Re-used patterns…for more flannel nighties and sparkling costumes…as grandsons and granddaughters arrived….

Green Circle Grove

Every one of these guides has a memory or three connected with it…stories that I needed to remember and share, of the patterns that have shaped my life. Why, the original tote bag pattern is even in this box!Green Circle Grove


I truly believe I can dispose of them now.


Cleaning the rest of the closet will have to wait for a while, though.



This post is shared with Simple Life Sunday (Trayer Wilderness).

Jars of Memories

Boxes and boxes of canning jars.  When my husband helped his family clean out his grandmother’s old farmhouse, that’s what we found in the basement.  Grandma Burdick always had a huge garden, spending many hours planting, hoeing, harvesting and preserving.  She loved the outdoors and the farm life, and I’m sure must have felt a great sense of accomplishment when she gazed at the glistening shelves of canned goods.

Grandma Burdick and the foot long carrot!

 These jars were the older type with the metal bale—the ones that took jar rubbers.  The many years of re-filling had caused most of the bales to no longer fasten tightly, the glass on the edges of jars and lids was nicked, and in many cases jars and lids didn’t match up.  Like Grandma Burdick, though, I hate to throw out anything that might possibly be useful. So…a big box of old canning jars came to live at my house, along with various other items like a bottle-capper (and a nearly full box of bottle caps), several odd sizes and lengths of stove pipe, some gardening tools and a big tin of buttons.

I love buttons.  When I was small, I entertained myself for many hours with my mother’s button box.  There were some big, colorful buttons that just begged to be strung on yarn and worn as a fancy necklace.  There were smaller, sparkly buttons that could be used for rings and tiaras.  Sorting, counting, pretending to be a princess –I still remember what fun I had.  I thought of having a “button box” as a sort of rite of passage, I guess:  I would know I was a grown-up when I had my own button box!

Years went by, and I wasn’t nearly as careful about hanging on to buttons as ladies of my mother and Grandma Burdick’s generation.  They carefully removed buttons from shirts and coats when they were to be discarded, usually stringing like buttons together before adding them to the assortment in a box.  These women sewed for their families and often went to the button box for a decorative touch on a child’s dress, a replacement for one lost on a cuff, or just simple fastenings to add to an everyday shift.  I sewed a few things for my children when they were small, but often used snaps so I wouldn’t have to make buttonholes—and if I needed a replacement button, I would either buy a card of them, or I would put the item at the bottom of the pile and eventually take it with others in like disrepair to a rummage sale.

Until I saw that big tin of buttons….

First, I poured them all into a huge wooden butter bowl, and just set them on the coffee table.  What a conversation piece! Visitors would sort a little, and then exclaim how they remembered similar buttons on a favorite coat, their grandmother’s sweater, or their dad’s Sunday white shirt.  Stories were told and memories revived.  Button boxes also hold other items, and so old garters were laughed about, delicate single earrings were admired, and interesting questions were asked about long tufting needles encased in narrow needle cases.  Some of the buttons from this tin were old buttons made from bone – and when I realized that was why our family dogs also liked to sort through the bowl, I moved the bowl to another, less convenient spot.

Our oldest granddaughter came to visit for a few days. Emma was about six years old, and looking for some fun things to do on a snowy winter holiday.  I remembered the buttons, poured them out onto a quilt and gave her some yarn.  Just as I had at about the same age, she strung big buttons into necklaces and hairpieces, created imaginative stories, and sorted colors, shapes and sizes.  As I watched her categorize the pieces, I thought of the connections between this little girl and me, her grandmother.  My mother (her great-grandmother) had given me her button box to play with once upon a time.  And now this six year old was playing with buttons that had been handled by her great-great Grandma Burdick.

I remembered the old glass canning jars.  With Emma’s help, I washed and carefully dried them, and filled them with the buttons.  We filled jars with like colors and sizes, covered them with lids and lifted the bale.  It doesn’t matter if they are a bit loose or nicked on the edges. 






When we finished, we put them on a shelf in my sewing room, and stood back in admiration.  The colored buttons shone in the light on the shelf nearly as brightly as a shelf full of jars of preserves.  And…isn’t that what we did?  Preserved those memories of another day and another time?


I use the buttons in my sewing now, too.  They are right where I can see them, so I can find a replacement button easily, if needed.  I often use them on the totes and purses I sew, too, for a special decorative accent.



Buttons on a purse flap!









And, I’ll confess, sometimes I’ll just spill out a jar full of buttons onto a table or quilt to see what’s there.  Buttons from a baby’s dress… a single oval with a painted flower in the center…a monogrammed orb of gold…memories, dreams and imagination preserved in a jar.

Look closely…what can you find?


This post is shared with Thursday Favorite Things Blog Hop 112!

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