My Late Mom's Recipe Boxes Bring Me Back to Childhood, One Taste at a Time
My mother kept track of our family’s favorite dishes on index cards. Now they're stained, yellowed, and full of delicious memories.
I cherish everything my mom gave me—her up-and-down-the-scales laugh and her absent-mindedness; her love of travel and beautiful clothes; her quiet side and her passion for the theater. I have some small totems, like the eyeglass case and bifocals that I keep on my dresser and make me think she’s in the other room reading, even though she passed more than a decade ago. And I have precious ones, like her engagement ring, which I wear every day, and that makes my hand look like hers.
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But of all the tangibles and intangibles that my mom left behind, what brings me closest to her now are two small plastic boxes, stuffed full of her favorite recipes, that I took from her kitchen. The collection is wonderfully analog, from long before Allrecipes.com, Spoon Fork Bacon, and the iPad doubling as a cookbook. Its contents are unsearchable, undatabaseable, untaggable—paper relics of another era. The graceful cursive I know as well as my own slopes across the index cards and transports me through time to her side. I see my mom’s hand in the stains and blurs and folds of each note. Her history is in the recipes she filed here. Flipping through, I pull out instructions for her oven-fried chicken, a family classic, and hold it to my nose. The card is scentless, but reading the words, I breathe in my Florida childhood. I can’t touch the dish, but my mouth waters the same. There are no pictures, but I can see Mom’s slim, tanned arms serving the meal to us: my brother, Dad, and I sit in the same spots we choose every night, and Charlie the dog waits expectantly under my chair for stray, prize morsels.
Each box is in loose alphabetical order, organized by manila dividers. One morning, preparing to write this essay, I grabbed the Bs. The first recipe was for blintzes, a Russian dish of thin crepes folded around sweet cheese filling. These instructions were brought from the old country by my grandmother to Brookline, Massachusetts, where she met my grandfather and produced my mother and my two uncles. The blintzes in time made their way to our house in Florida and became the centerpiece of Mom’s “dairy” dinners, the meatless kosher-style meals she served on Sundays. I unfolded a yellowed square stuck to the card and found a recipe for berry sauce—for the blintzes—scrawled on a notepad I designed in lowercase letters for Mom when I was in junior high: from the desk of sara daspin. I turned over the manila divider, and there, in childish capitals, was the word BANANA, spelled out by my daughter, now 18, when she was learning to write. My mom had captured four generations for posterity. Did she know she was passing that on to me?
Any family’s recipes are a measure of its DNA, full of clues and revelations. That is why they are so precious to us. We all have our own madeleines, tasty or terrible, sensory recollections that are a connection to not only our own past but the past that came before us. We remember our younger selves and those who surrounded and nurtured us. Our family recipes connect us to our aunts, uncles, grandparents, and cousins, many of whom we know only by their stories or the dishes they passed on to us. “No one who cooks, cooks alone,” wrote novelist Laurie Colwin. “Even at her most solitary, a cook in the kitchen is surrounded by generations of cooks past, the advice and menus of cooks present, the wisdom of cookbook writers.”
Mom was not a perfect cook. I remember the time she left eggs boiling while she napped, waking up to a crust of shell, yolk flakes, and chunks of white sprayed over the kitchen walls, Jackson Pollock style, and the pot melted to the burner. We had to get a new stove. Mom could also be sneaky. When she would throw a dinner party, which she did often, she used to go to the Ranch House, a local restaurant that served a tangy, creamily perfect key lime pie. Mom would arrive with two of her tins and have the restaurant pastry chef prepare the recipe in them. My parents’ guests would rave, none the wiser.
I’m guessing Mom began clipping and keeping recipes when she got married in the 1950s. That’s what a good wife would do back then, to supplement The Joy of Cooking and, in Mom’s case, her Hadassah binder with the plastic-comb spine and recipes for kugel and matzo balls and carrot tsimmis, a sweet Yiddish stew. Over the years, Mom’s cookbook collection grew with her curiosity. When I was a girl, her prized editions were Vol. 1 and 2 of Gourmet, the authoritative doorstops with gold embossed lettering on the maroon leather cover, and inside, exotic fare like duck with wild rice that she learned to master. Later, like home cooks across the county, Mom discovered more modern ideas from Marcella Hazan and Giuliano Bugialli to Julia Child and Craig Claiborne. The best of the best, she adopted as her own and added to the two recipe boxes I now have in my kitchen.
Many of mom’s cards are typed—by me, in a fit of industriousness at 15—which she later annotated because I left things out. I used to be so disappointed that I had made these mistakes. I had been careless with something important to her. But now her penciled-in corrections are my favorite bits. They are like my mom speaking directly to me. Sometimes, it’s something I forgot; others, it’s a shortcut or trick she’d picked up. For her apple pie filling, I typed “crushed rice crispies and 2 T. flour,” which Mom corrected to “small handful of crushed rice crispies.” After nutmeg, she added the word “grated;” after 3 cups of apples, she wrote “WINESAP.” She also noted in neat print, “pieces of butter (about 1T)” and that the crust needed to be pricked with a fork before the pie was put in the oven. I smile at the secret trick to her chocolate sauce, written at the end: “mix in one jar Baskin Robbins hot fudge.”
The recipe boxes themselves are pretty ordinary looking: One’s a pale blue, the other a dull tan, each designed for maybe 100 cards. Instead, Mom’s boxes explode, like her wallet. Index cards, newspaper clippings, postcards, and notepaper folded into tiny squares are all jimmied in together willy-nilly. Pull on one recipe and five fly out. The tan box holds what I might call Mom’s regulars. These are a mix of all-American standbys—mac ’n’ cheese, meatloaf, baked beans—and traditional Jewish holiday dishes. There are traces of Mom’s shifting tastes and wanderlust: the stone crabs and corn and carrot soufflé from her New Orleans period; the stir-fries from her lessons with Madame Wong; ratatouille from her brief flirtation with southern France. Her friends make delightful cameos in titles like Phyllis’ Lovely Cheesecake, Wilson Knott’s Mother’s Light Fruitcake, and, from the mother of my 8-year-old best friend, Charlene, the delicious and powdery Mary Wygodski’s Cookies.
The second box is a paean to Italy, a country Mom fell in love with after Enzo Perlini, a dashing Roman, opened Orlando’s first authentic Italian restaurant, in 1980. Enzo’s on the Lake was an elegant trattoria where you least expected it, hidden behind a wall and scrim of oak trees off highway 17-92. It had stucco walls and a terra cotta floor and a glorious antipasto bar before we knew what antipasti were. For my parents, Enzo’s became their every-occasion restaurant. Special nights out, anniversaries, birthdays, spur-of-the-moment Fridays. Enzo introduced my mom to bucatini and pesto and porcini and spaghetti con vongole, and she learned them all. Enzo’s name is on many of the recipes that became her signatures, and there are ideas borrowed from what became my parents’ annual pilgrimages: to Lago di Como, Forte dei Marmi, Verona, Milano, Siena, and Lucca, the hometown of my husband, fittingly a chef, who inspired my mom’s later-in-life affair with all tastes Tuscan.
No matter where I dip, I find a memory, sweet or bittersweet, or something that makes me laugh, like her brisket, which she made every Passover, with raisins plumped by the sauce. In the late 1970s, there was a raisin shortage, because of rain damage to the crop, and raisins were impossible to find. That didn’t stop Mom from making her pot roast, though. She hoarded boxes of Raisin Bran and plucked out all of the dried fruit bits until she had enough. There’s Grandma Daspin cookies, my paternal grandmother’s recipe, which were so beloved, Mom made the dough in bulk, tripling or even quadrupling the ingredients and freezing the dough in batches, which she could pull out to produce warm cinnamon-dusted cookies on demand.
When my brother was visiting recently, I knew I had to serve our dessert of choice from childhood: that perfect apple pie. One was often parked on the daisy-yellow cake stand on the kitchen counter, and between my brother, my dad, and me, it never lasted long. The apples were always tender and buttery, the crust at the tipping point between crumbly and rich. I attributed that flakiness to the Crisco, but Mom insisted there were other factors, all important—like chilling the dough, rolling it in one direction, and baking the pie in a metal, not glass, pan.
In making mine, I did as she instructed, flattening the dough between sheets of floured wax paper and pushing one way. Bits of dough got caught in the paper wrinkles, just as they did for Mom, and I patiently worked them out, widening the circle bit by bit until it was stretched just thin enough. After gently peeling back a layer of the paper, I placed the sheet in the pan and flipped. It’s a motion I’ve repeated so often it’s a muscle memory, though I rarely get it right the way Mom did.
The taste, though, is exactly the same, and when I served the pie, my brother and I were kids again. We had cleared the table and were stealing extra forkfuls of pie at the kitchen island. Mom was warming a slice in the oven for Dad, who was sitting in his spot in the living room, glued to the evening news. It could have been 1971 or ’72 or ’73. The year didn’t matter. We were all our younger selves and, with our forks and pie in hand, would be forever.
This article originally appeared in the Parents special interest publication, Feeding Your Family, out May 24th.