Before their were personal computers, foodies, and food sites sharing every recipe known to humankind, there were recipe boxes and a few treasured cookbooks in every kitchen.
The recipe box I best remember was a dark wooden one. It was mortice and tenon joined box, and the short sides were curved. My mother treasured it. It belonged to her mother. It probably traced to the first decade of the 20th Century when my grandmother married, but it might have been her mother’s before hers.
Most women my age, remember the recipe boxes of their mothers.
I once collected most of my mother’s recipes to give to my brothers but I diddled around too long and they died before I finished the project. I should have just photocopied the recipe cards and distributed them.
The lesson here is do not wait to share what you know, what you have. Nieces and will appreciate the recipes, but not as much as my brothers would have appreciated them – on many levels. I do not think we ever forget our mother’s handwriting.
Recipes are not food, just as maps are not territories. Let people know how to provide context for the food you prepare from family recipes.
Farm families, such as my own, did not always have time to whip cream and before the days of electric mixers, it took a strong arm and a bit of time to make the light and fluffy desert topping. So when making “Grandma’s Strawberry Shortcake,” follow the recipe, but do not add whipped cream to the top. My family served cream to pour over the top of the short cake and sugared berries.
If you know of such details of how certain foods were served, and on what occasions they were served, include a few brief notes with the recipe.
Strawberry shortcake was always served at the Summer’s birthday gathering that celebrated three of my brother’s birthdays. Jim, my eldest brother, always requested the strawberry shortcake. Chocolate upside-down cake was requested by the youngest of my four brothers. The middle brother with the third birthday always requested German chocolate cake with coconut icing.
All the family would gather for an afternoon of food, sweets, and family stories. The shade tree in the back yard was the canopy under which we then drank lemonade and coffee. My family did not drink alcohol.
Much about family dynamics is contained within the context of gathering together for celebration. Food itself may point to place of origin, but other information is also likely to be embedded in the details surrounding the meal. Were cards played? Board games? Did men and women mix after the meal?
In many ways there is nothing sadder than an orphaned recipe. Document as much as you can. This captures family culture. Record as much detail as is comfortable.
Handed down recipes are always the best. Sadly, my grandmother didn’t use recipes for many of her dishes and those are lost forever.
I try to find dishes like the one with the lost recipe and sometime I am successful. Never give up.