Real food in the recipe box

Posted: Sunday, November 15, 2009

I am a bit of a food freak. I love to cook, I love to go pick up my Full Circle Farm box. I love to look at cookbooks. And really I love to read about food on the Internet. Really. Any recipe I want, with any ingredients, from any corner of the world, at the touch of a button. It is a far cry from how my grandmother cooked.

Instead, my grandmother cooked from a box in the cupboard. Though she cooked thousands and thousands of meals since they rarely ate out, my grandmother was no Julia Child. She served packaged, squishy white bread with butter at every meal. The most exotic spice she ever used was salt. And a meal's ultimate purpose was to fill you up, not especially to tempt the palate. If it tasted good, that was mostly just a bonus. If it tasted complicated, it was too complicated to make.

But she was grounded by this box. It was filled with stained cards and clippings from women's magazines filed away alphabetically. On the cards, ingredients were written in my grandmother's perfunctory handwriting in one column down the left; the directions below in a block which sometimes spilled over to the back.

The best of these recipes looked the worst, stained in butter and flour. A recipe for date-filled Christmas cookies, or sugar cookie cutouts, or potato pancakes might become so encrusted that they would eventually be recopied and slipped into a tiny plastic sleeve.

I now imagine the recipe box and its ingredients telling a bigger story than what my grandparents ate for dinner (which, on some levels, is interesting in itself). The handwriting of other women documented her relationships: Who was important enough to get recipes from? When did someone make this special dish for my grandmother?

When my grandmother was diagnosed with high cholesterol, butter was replaced on the cards with what she called "oleo," who's stain seemed just a bit oilier, blurring the card's blue ink. Just like anyone's recipe collection, some were labeled "Mom's barbecue sauce," or "Grandma's lemon pie." All these cards were tangible connections between her modern self and, as Michael Pollan calls it, her food traditions.

And, I imagine if I were to see that original collection of hers, I would see how in such a short time, really just her lifetime, how much her food traditions changed. How many more recipes eventually came from magazines than from another woman's hand. How oleo banished butter and Crisco became king. She made concessions to the empire of prepared food, and most of those changes suited her just fine.

Thankfully, some things never changed. She always canned fruits and tomatoes in the fall, just as the women in my family do now. Potatoes for pancakes were always ground by hand in a meat grinder. Saurkraut was always painfully fermented. And lemon pie would always be tart enough to strip the enamel from your teeth.

But by the time her daughter, my mother, was cooking for a family, we had graduated from even box birthday cakes to frozen Sara Lee's. In my childhood, processed meant progress.

And today, here I am, finding all my recipes online, trying things that would have made my grandmother cringe, leaving no trail of delight in greasy fingerprints on what we like. I make gluten-free muffins for my family from ground almonds instead of flour. I make Thai coconut soup, for my 6-year-old. So on some levels, I am as far from my grandmother's food traditions as she was.

But, truth be told, Crisco has been dethroned in our house, and margarine lost out to butter long ago. The boxes of prepared food my grandmother and mother saw as progress feels gratefully outdated to us. Now old food is new food.

Several times a family member has typed up grandma's old recipes. But the recipes felt dated, like wearing her shrunken sweater. Some remain timeless and are hoarded in my brain or on my hard drive. What I would now like, though, are the recipes of her mother, where skim milk would never be substituted for cream and where canned never substituted for fresh. Unless, of course, the tomatoes were home canned.

• Marie Ryan McMillan is a parent and teacher in Juneau.

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