A Mother’s Cookbook Shares More Than Recipes

Credit…Amber Fouts for The New York Times

By Kim Severson. The New York Times, May 5, 2015

The last full sentence I heard from my mom was around Easter. “You better call Michael,” she said.

The only Michael in our family is a distant cousin I can’t be sure I’ve even met. But I went with it. Sure, Mom. I’ll call him.

That’s what it’s like these days.

My mother has a kind of dementia that comes with advanced Parkinson’s. That’s lousy in a million ways, but I especially miss talking to her about cooking.

My dad recently sent me a big box filled with her old cookbooks and stacks of handwritten recipes on index cards and slips of paper. The recipes are held together with thick rubber bands or filed into a cheerful metal recipe box. They are the sum total of the cooking life of a woman who fed seven people every day for a long time.

I wish I could tell you that the collection is a brilliant, well-ordered trove of culinary instruction.

That special glazed Bundt cake I remember from childhood, the one she would always have under the green plastic dome when I returned home for a visit? The recipe came from a card attached to a bottle of Bacardi rum.

Old recipes on display at the "Dirty Pages" exhibition in Nashville.
Old recipes on display at the “Dirty Pages” exhibition in Nashville.
Credit…Joe Buglewicz for The New York Times

Next to the King Ranch casserole recipe in an old PTA cookbook, she made a note to add chopped green peppers, green chiles and a can of Rotel tomatoes. It was her attempt to give the sauce of canned soup a little life. The page ripples with the aftermath of some long-ago spill. Bits of dried sauce still cling to it.

In a flash, I’m back at our oak dinner table, my dad still in his shirt and tie from work serving that workhorse of a dish to five kids.

Turns out it was the mess that mattered to me the most.

The worn pages of a cookbook have a unique ability to drill into a place where food memory mixes with love and loss. As our kitchen adventures increasingly get recorded in sleek digital files or even the fleeting history of a recipe search, beat-up cookbooks become more valuable, both personally and historically.

“We love to see marked-up, dog-eared, grease-splattered cookbooks,” said Paula Johnson, a curator at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History in Washington, where Julia Child’s kitchen and beloved books are housed. How a cookbook is marked, by handwritten notes or physical evidence that a recipe was prepared over and over, tells much about the intent and life of the cook.

At the museum, visitors marvel at how worn Child’s books are, especially her two copies of “Joy of Cooking.”

From left, Cindy Wall, Jennifer Justus and Erin Byers Murray, the creators of the "Dirty Pages" project.
From left, Cindy Wall, Jennifer Justus and Erin Byers Murray, the creators of the “Dirty Pages” project.
Credit…Joe Buglewicz for The New York Times

“They’re thrilled to see the wear and tear, because Julia used her books just like they do,” Ms. Johnson said.

From a curator’s perspective, the mess also brings worry. “We know that big old grease stains and bits of buttery dough on the pages will have an impact on the long-term viability of the volume,” she said. The mess could even attract bugs, which could harm the volumes around it. So conservators must sometimes clean the books, documenting every splotch they remove so the full story of the book is preserved.

Celia Sack, 45, collects old cookbooks, and she opened Omnivore Books in San Francisco, in part, to feed her habit. She sells plenty of new cookbooks, but her shop has also become a repository for antiquarian volumes and other important work.

She bought the chef Jeremiah Tower’s entire cookbook collection in 2011. Mr. Tower didn’t make notes as he cooked his way through Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” but he made plenty of splatters.

“What made it valuable was, it was his and you could travel back in his mind and see where he was going by what he was cooking at the time,” Ms. Sack said. “It is a journey.”

Diners at a potluck for the "Dirty Pages" exhibition in the Nashville Farmers' Market.
Diners at a potluck for the “Dirty Pages” exhibition in the Nashville Farmers’ Market.
Credit…Joe Buglewicz for The New York Times

In Nashville, three writers joined this year to celebrate the analog beauty of a well-used cookbook page. They asked 18 cooks, some professionals and some novices, to select a meaningful recipe of their own and write about why it mattered. The women and their recipes were photographed. The project, called “Dirty Pages,” became an art installation that made the rounds in Nashville and will have a permanent home at the Southern Food and Beverage Museum in New Orleans.

The idea came when Jennifer Justus, a food writer, saw a friend’s Facebook post depicting a splattered cookbook page. Kim McKinney, a home cook in Nashville, left a comment: “I tell my daughters that when I go, they’ll know the good recipes from the dirty pages.”

Erin Byers Murray, a founder of the project, said, “What’s crazy is that it’s taken social media for a lot of us to recognize what treasures they are.”

The novelist Alice Randall, 56, is one of the women in the exhibit. In February, she and her daughter, Caroline Randall Williams, published “Soul Food Love: Healthy Recipes Inspired by One Hundred Years of Cooking in a Black Family.”

At the heart of the book, which covers four generations, is a collection of more than a thousand cookbooks left to Ms. Williams by her grandmother, a Nashville librarian who read cookbooks like novels. As one might expect from a good librarian, she didn’t mark her books. But they hold treasures pressed between the pages, like Queen Anne’s lace and grocery lists.

“Every time I come upon one, it is a marker of a shared, similar experience,” said Ms. Williams, who recently received a Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of Mississippi. “It connects you to a moment when they were alive and were occupying space with this same object.”

Even the titles of the books her grandmother collected speak to her. “Knowing that my grandmother loved Italian fish stew and salmon mousse and Russian food, what does that tell me about a black women in Nashville during the civil rights movement?” she said.

Her mother, Ms. Randall, is a much messier cook, and her books reflect it. She describes her mother as distant. For comfort, Ms. Randall watched old Julia Child cooking shows and taught herself to cook from her books. Later, at Harvard, she did an independent study with Child.

She contributed Child’s lobster bisque recipe from “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” to the exhibit. She has made vats of it, starting when she was the young bride of a State Department official, because it seemed suitable for entertaining. The book’s pages are older than her daughter, who is 27.

“If I had to take one item out of my burning house to give to Caroline, it would be that book,” she said.

Recipes belonging to the author's mother.
Recipes belonging to the author’s mother.
Credit…Amber Fouts for The New York Times

I feel the same way about the trove my father sent me. (He has been passing on family memorabilia since he moved into a condominium a short walk from the little nursing home where my mom lives, in a Colorado ski town. He goes there to feed her every meal.)

When I finally got the strength to dig into the box, everything in it seemed important. Even the order felt too sacred to mess up.

My mom was a cook who got better as her children grew up. Eventually, she would head up the cookbook committee for the hospital auxiliary and even teach a few classes when she got a part-time job at a kitchen cookware store.

She clipped recipes from magazines or wrote them on whatever happened to be at hand. Instructions for the popovers she made with our Christmas roast beef were scratched out on the back of a contract bridge score sheet. Several were taken down on notepads from moving companies, evidence of how many times we packed up and headed for a new city. Sometimes, a recipe like chicken chili or an aunt’s carrot cake would show up in my dad’s neat block script on his work stationery. She had odd little notes — “3 qts water 1 qt vinegar 1 cup salt boil and put on pickles” — and mysteries I have yet to solve, like who was Shirley, why were there quotation marks around her “sugar cookies,” and did they really need a cup of lard?

She even had practical advice from friends, like this on a recipe for cassoulet: “Really good if you like beans. A real pain in the ass to make, however.”

The most sacred to me are the recipes from her Italian family. I picked up a sheet that listed mashed potatoes, oil, salt and egg with only two lines of instruction. The word “rats” was written at the bottom. That’s what some of her sisters called cavatelli. Early on, I learned how to press the potato dough on the counter with my thumb so the little dumpling flipped over and curled like a rat’s tail.

I finally got to the card that held a recipe for the coconut cream pie she would bake because I loved it so. It was the first pie I ever attempted.

My mom’s handwriting is a messy version of the formal cursive they taught in northern Wisconsin public schools in the 1940s. I traced the loopy, uneven instructions with my fingers. And then I made the pie for my daughter.

Source: Kim Severson, The New York Times, May 5, 2015

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