My Grandmother’s recipe box

Over the winter, my Grandmother passed away. I was fortunate enough to have a wonderful relationship with her my entire life, so although her passing left me saddened, it didn’t leave me with regrets.

Strangely, a visit we had planned to “say goodbye” turned into a trip for her funeral as she passed away only days before we were to leave to see her. This left us with the only thing left to do: help clean out her apartment.

Unlike many grandmothers, mine did not strongly shape my views on food. Before her passing, I had already gathered one cherished recipe from her, Booyah which is a Midwestern tradition.

But there was one thing that I coveted: her recipe box. It spoke to me. A small, index-card sized wooden box, tall enough to accommodate an over-stuffed treasure trove. It was the only thing of hers that I wanted to take home with me.

It wasn’t the recipes themselves that I wanted so dearly, though I was warmed when I found the original well-worn Booyah recipe. I treasured her recipes, written by hand, because of their intimacy. It was as if it were my last connection to my father and she and the treasured days of my very carefree youth well spent near my grandparents at our summer home. Rummaging through the cards, a faint musty smell arose, old paper and long ago used spices. I imagined her long before she was a grandmother, when she was wife and mother of 5, flipping through the cards trying to come up with something that would make everyone happy. As my fingers graced the same cards hers had many years ago, I could imagine her voice “Oh, hunny, this is Grandma’s favorite way to make Mac and Cheese, why bother with the box?”

There was no discernible organization to the recipes, apparently, we share the same talent for recipe organization. There was a futile attempt at arrangement, but the separation of fish from beef had long since been abandoned. Instead the jumbled recipes cards were a road map of sorts. Her life within this tiny box, as expressed through food. I marveled at the contrast of the recipes forced to the front. I could imagine her long, delicate fingernails, gracing across the top of each handwritten card, fingering it with consideration.  Did she keep her lobster recipe in front to remind her of celebratory meals of days gone by? Did she make macaroni and cheese often after her children were grown? Egg Foo Young was one of her favorites, but I can’t believe that she often had to refer to the recipe, but it maintained a “favorite” position towards the front.  I think stuffed green peppers, proudly maintaining its front position, was a favorite of my grandfather who passed away over 20 years ago. Pineapple pork chops jumped out at me, she probably made that often to remind her of her trip in the early ’70’s to Hawaii, a place she loved and where I now live.  Beer batter was one of the very first and I remembered beer soaked brats of my Green Bay youth.

Also in the tiny box of treasures were recipes tucked in there from magazines and food packaging. Creamy salad dressing and Ragu spaghetti sauce meat loaf. Many of these items were forced to the back. As if she cut them out, but then thought better of the recipes or perhaps, made her own and never wrote them down.

One of the stranger recipe cards held the details for an open-faced Tuna Salad Sandwich; why did she keep or even have that recipe? Aren’t we born with the knowledge of how to make a sandwich? She notes on one yellowing, clearly favored card that the “Raspberry Pie” recipe was “Delicious” and this is one dish I don’t exactly remember eating though I am sure I did during the summer months when the raspberry patch was bursting with goodness. I can remember she and my mother canning raspberry jam for the cold, dark winter months ahead.

As we always do when someone leaves us, I wished that I had gone through this recipe box with her, when she was alive. I wanted desperately to hear her stories and reasoning for certain stashed away secrets. And I wondered, if future generations will feel as nostalgic about computer files where I keep my recipes. Will they even be able to read them on the computers 50 years from now?

I finally decided to stop treasuring this simple box, which I’ve had on my desk since I received it, and take it downstairs to the kitchen. What good is a recipe on my desk? I’ll put it right next to the Joy of Cooking which is a virtual memoir of the recipes on my mother’s side of the family. Once in a while, when I miss my grandmother, I’ll review one of her favorites. What I haven’t decided is whether I will make my own notes next to hers, or keep them the same as the last day she closed the lid on her recipe box.

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About Tara DeWitt Coomans

An aspiring cook and an accomplished eater, Tara is inspired by the world around her and the food on her plate. "When you can't jump on a plane and take a vacation to an exotic destination, chances are you can whip up a dish or go to a restaurant that will take you there." says Tara. She often eats out at a restaurant after trying to accomplish a given dish at home. None the less, she enjoys food and what it says about the human experience. Tara is a full-time freelance writer and blogger. She specializes in writing about food, cooking and travel. You can find her in the kitchen, on the plane or at her computer.