It was the easiest chocolate cake ever, moist, dense, with saucepan frosting poured over the top. Everyone in my family loved this confection, even though the frosting was too sweet and the cake was too heavy. I could barely wash down a piece with a large glass of milk. Diabetes on a plate. And yet somehow this dessert always concluded a special family dinner.
It was my sister’s job to bake it. My mother looked forward to it nervously. “Will you make the cake?” Mom would ask my sister. Once we all lived in our own households, she’d ask me, “Is she going to bring the cake?” My mother had the recipe, she could make it too, but somehow my sister always brought the cake.
She would beat the batter by hand, mixing in the Miracle Whip (yes, sorry, we were a Miracle Whip household), and bake it in an aluminum sheet pan of just the proper depth. We were particular about cake pans in our family. While it cooled, she would melt margarine in a saucepan, adding sugar and spooning in cocoa powder in a special stove top alchemy that ensured the frosting would pour, then set.
The last time she tried to make the cake, my sister couldn’t remember how. The results were disappointing. Actually, inedible. She’d done it from memory but memory is a fragile thing. We all wondered where to find the actual recipe. It was probably in my mother’s recipes, which she kept in an antique wooden box she found at a farm auction in South Dakota.
I know where that box is. My father used it to hold my mother’s ashes when we buried them at Willamette Cemetery. Dad is also buried there now.
None of us remaining kids know where the recipes went.
In 1979, a friend of mine’s father taught in the meteorology department at the University of Montana. This whole family was astonishing in their intelligence and artistic talent, just one of those families you meet and you can’t figure out how so many smart, talented people live in one place without causing an implosion of one kind or another.
Anyway, this was the first family I knew to have a home computer. It was about the size of a dorm fridge. I have no idea how much it cost, but I was skeptical. “What is it for?” I wanted to know. My friend explained a few basic things about computing to me, and then remarked that his mother was going to put all her recipes in it. “So it’s for recipes?” I asked. “I have something for recipes. It’s called a recipe box, and it’s a lot smaller than this.”
I don’t have a recipe box anymore, but I do have a computer. I store no recipes on here. If I absolutely need a recipe for something, I just go to allrecipes.com. So in a way, my Montana friend was right, wasn’t he?
In the mid-2010s, I received a distressing phone call about my birth father, who was living in Langford, South Dakota. I hadn’t heard from him in a few weeks. Maybe a month. I’d been traveling, so contact had gotten away from me.
He was drinking quite a bit at that time, and prone to making rambling, repetitive phone calls in which he had harsh things to say about everyone besides himself. The calls were not pleasant. I say this by way of explanation, not to make excuses. I still feel terrible about that month of not contacting him.
So, while I wasn’t calling, the worst thing that can happen had happened. He’d had some kind of medical event, and was trapped in his home for at least a week, maybe more. He was near death when a friend found him.
I called my former stepmom and she put me in touch with the doctors, who told me that my father was destroyed, mentally and physically. But he could talk. He told me to come out there, saying, “Hurry, honey.”
I’m not sure what exactly I accomplished in South Dakota, besides tracking down his wallet and glasses (we didn’t find his teeth). I made sure I was listed as next of kin on every single form that needed to be filled out, with the correct phone number. I felt helpless. Was this really all I could do?
When it seemed that he would not be living independently again, my father wanted me to go to his house and, I don’t know, take things, which implied of course that I had to want things. That’s a difficult position to find yourself in, when you don’t really know your own birth father very well. I wasn’t even sure what to want.
My father was surprised that I wanted a metal recipe box that had belonged to my Aunt Cass, and my Grandma Z before her. “Oh, you want that, do you?” he said. “I don’t know why. None of those recipes make any sense. Both of them wrote a ‘t’ of this and a ‘t’ of that, and you can’t tell whether it’s a tablespoon or a teaspoon.”
I wanted the recipe box, even though my father had always spoken disparagingly of his mother’s cooking, proclaiming, “She could fry bacon and not put any meat in it.” In this grandmother’s defense, she had many kids, and was widowed. She had to stretch that protein.
In spite of the doomsaying of his doctors, my father made a partial recovery. He was able to walk, not well, but he could leave the care home. He had five decent years before he died. We spoke fairly often, especially after he remarried my stepmom, removing that pesky “former”. She was always better about calling than he was.
After his memorial, there was a get-together. There are over seventy first cousins on this side of the family and I knew none of them. About twenty of them showed up for the service (keep in mind that my father was the youngest of quite a brood, and had cousins his age and older).
So, there I sat in a room full of first cousins I didn’t know. Some of them didn’t actually know I existed. I sidled from table to table, saying very little, soaking up all these Midwestern strangers, many of them tall like me. Some even had noses like mine. Eeriest of all, I saw my own eyes all over the room.
Then, I heard it. Someone was talking about Grandma Z’s cooking. At last, I had something to say! I mentioned that I had that metal recipe box. The ears of three sisters in particular pricked up like little foxes. “Recipes? You have Grandma’s recipe box?”
I said I did, but I hadn’t really investigated it. I told them what my father (their uncle) had said about not being able to figure out the ‘t’ measurements.
Well, they knew exactly what it meant. T = Tablespoon and t = teaspoon.
At least two of these sisters cook. One sister’s Facebook feed is an engrossing culinary delight. Another sister doesn’t post much about food, but she and her husband care about it. She prepares Christmas stollens with candied fruit she makes herself after hunting down Buddha’s Hand at the fruit stands. There are two other sisters in this family, and I don’t know if they cook, but they certainly knew this grandmother far better than I ever did.
A few months ago, one of these lovely sisters and her husband stayed at my house for a weekend. They were in town to see kids and grandkids, and they let me provide my favorite kind of hospitality: Fresh sheets, clean towels, here’s your house key, see you when I see you.
They politely ate my not-fantastic-but-perfectly-adequate food. One morning, my cousin was a little pained by my stale sourdough (she bakes her own with starter that she’s carried from state to state over the years). She tried to cover, but you know, I could tell. I found this endearing.
It was a charming visit. I had the recipe box sitting out on my counter when she got there. I wanted to make sure she’d see it and take it, which she did. She packed it reverently back to her home, planning to bring it along on a sister trip the four of them had planned. She said they’d probably read these recipes out loud to each other, remembering the cooking of a grandmother and an aunt I barely knew.
That made me feel just like Christmas.
So, one of my inherited recipe boxes has gone back to a part of the family where it will be far more meaningful. But I still have one from another grandmother, brought back from Minnesota after she died. It is a HUGE plastic box.
I’ve never much investigated it, though there is a family recipe for Swedish pancakes right up front. I have an adorable first cousin in her twenties on that side of the family. I keep thinking I’ll send it to her, but I should copy out that delicious pancake recipe first.
I also have one of my own. Well, I had one in high school, but Mom loved it so much she just…took it. I didn’t get it back until after she died. And I believe that on the day she died, in the wreckage of my grief, I went into her kitchen and found that (empty) recipe box because 1) I always meant to reclaim it, and 2) I cling to the Midwestern reverence for recipe boxes.
My plan was to give it to my oldest daughter. I actually bought two more, one for each girl. In my mind, I’d be filling these three boxes with hand-lettered cards for all my best recipes. Except in all seriousness I don’t have any best recipes. I cook simply and always have. I moved out at age fifteen and began making a basic dinner every night. I never graduated to making a special dinner each night.
If there is a stove, a fridge, and a pantry, I can look through and assemble a completely edible repast. You might even ask for seconds. But it is never anything special.
My girls would disagree. They would say my zucchini bake is the best, or my smothered pork chops (my ex-husband’s aunt taught me to make those), or my garbage chicken soup (so named as it was a way to clean out the fridge), or my shrimp Caesar salad (not so much prepared as assembled), or my pork roast (which I learned to make from my oldest daughter so I should not get any credit for this at all).
These meals are incredibly basic. Still, my daughters ask for the recipes. I don’t have any! I’ve emailed the steps for making two of the three “greatest hits” to the girls. The third will probably take some hands-on instruction (chicken and dumplings).
Those three vintage recipe boxes stay empty.
Back in the nineties when they were visiting us a lot, I bought a copy of The White Trash Cookbook and gave it to my South Dakota father. He read it to my stepmom all the way back home. I still crack up when I imagine his voice saying, “Oh here’s a good one, Jo-anney.” And then I imagine her scolding him, because she’d probably had enough.
Perhaps this is why, when I found a 1983 cookbook titled Best Recipes from the Backs of Boxes, Bottles, Cans and Jars, I bought it. Because why else would I have bought it? Nostalgia? Kitsch? I brought it home and put it on a shelf with my other cookbooks, which I absolutely never touch because they are specialty cookbooks that appeal to me as objects, not sources of recipes.
But maybe I’ll take this one down and give it a look through. Maybe I’ll find my sister’s chocolate cake recipe, which had to have come from the back of a mayonnaise jar. If I were to find it, I’m sure I’d be repelled. Times and tastes change. Post-menopause, I have a polite but distant relationship with sweets, and I’m once again as queasy as I was a child. The thought of Miracle Whip in a cake upsets my stomach, but the memory of my sister baking it?
Oh, that’s a tonic.
I can see my sister, and she has no recipe card in front of her, no open cookbook. She is eighteen or nineteen, not as tall as me and much too thin. She’s working away in one kitchen or another. She quietly focuses on the task at hand as her chestnut hair falls over her tortoiseshell glasses. Measuring and stirring, heating and pouring, she follows a recipe she knows by heart.
And as we all know, those are the best recipes of all.
(I’m still stuck in the past, and stuck in the kitchen. This was from a Katrina prompt, “The Napkin”.)
My grown daughters don’t use cloth napkins, or paper napkins, or any napkins. I’ll be served a beautiful, even elegant meal at one of their homes, then handed a small section of paper towel to use as a napkin. I’m not much on formal table settings, but it feels wrong to me, a mistake, as wrong as if I’ve been handed a wad of toilet paper with which to dab my mouth while eating.
Where are the napkins in my daughters’ homes?
I’m not sure, and I want to trot out that old saw, “They weren’t raised like that.” But really, they weren’t. We had a basket of paper napkins on the counter for breakfast and lunch. At dinner, each place was set with a cloth napkin.
I didn’t encounter cloth napkins until I was a nanny, working in the aforementioned Vandor Country Kitchen home where I learned to roast a chicken, bake a fish, and use cloth napkins. I wanted to incorporate them in my own home. It made me feel fancy.
Proof of this is that I only use them now when company is here. So take note. If you come to dinner at my home and I’ve set the table with cloth napkins, I’m being fancy on your behalf.
I was considering that idea, the cloth napkin as fancy, so I did a little research, which means I Googled it and clicked on the first promising link that popped up in my results. I found this blog post while trying to find out when paper napkins arrived on America’s tables: The History of Paper Napkins (this is a blog for a store that sells paper napkins). Here is an excerpt:
Paper napkins themselves originate from ancient China, when paper was invented in the 2nd century. Chih Pha, folded paper square napkins, were used for serving tea. The historical accuracy of this is backed up by documents describing the possessions of the Yu family from the city of Hangzhou.
And when did North America start getting in on using paper napkins? They arrived in the late 1800s, but didn’t pick up in popularity until 1948 – because Emily Post proclaimed that “It’s far better form to use paper napkins than linen napkins that were used at breakfast.”
Emily Post approved!
My mother had adopted so many markers of class and taste reminiscent of the 1950s, but for all my mother’s airs, we always used paper napkins. Perhaps Emily Post is why. We still had to use our napkins correctly. She trained me to always keep my napkin in my lap, or if I rose from the table, my chair. A used napkin on the table was a definite manners misstep.
My mother wouldn’t have dreamed of using a paper towel next to a plate. Is that why I’m so horrified by that idea?
Mom liked to imitate how her sister, my aunt Elaine, carefully and firmly pressed a napkin to the edges and corners of her mouth. “It was like she was staunching blood,” Mom explained. I try to imagine handing my Aunt Elaine a scant section of paper towel for this act. What would she say? How would she adjust?
WHAT HAS HAPPENED TO NAPKINS, I ASK YOU?!
(Yes, “napery” is a word I discovered while working on my latest project, which is a novel narrated by a somewhat fussy man. Anyway.)
As I’ve explained before, I’m an inveterate thrifter. I also go to antique stores, which is less satisfying because everything needs to be looked at, and I find it exhausting. Anyway, I think, as a secondhand shopping wizard, that I’ve seen everything. But in this thrifting group I belong to on Facebook, someone posted one of these and I had no idea what the heck it was. It was something like this:
Does this confuse you? Good. It certainly confused me.
This is a serviette lady. A very fancy example, with salt and pepper shakers, and a tray to hold toothpicks, and something (a candle?) sticking out of her head. Less fancy models just have the skirt with all the slots in it. The idea is, you fold your napkins (clearly cocktail napkins for this one, which were a thing) and arrange them in the slots so that they make a bouffant skirt of sorts. Then you put her out with your lady luncheon or bridge club spread, and people take their napkins out of her skirt.
I probably don’t need to explain that my mother would not have had such an item in her home. She was gifted a ceramic frog scrubber holder by a neighbor that she grudgingly used for years, but that was the extent of Mom’s tacky ceramics. The woman had taste (unlike me, who has a full shelf of ceramic honey servers).
But I don’t have any lady serviette holders. That is a bridge too far, even for me.
My husband and I both have big noses that drip constantly as we eat. I have no idea when this started to happen but it’s annoying and makes the use of cloth napkins problematic. So we use paper. Big, fluffy white paper napkins, the costly kind.
He has a whole system where he folds down the top edge of the napkin, creating a demarcation between the part used for his nose and the part used for his mouth. I admire this while also thinking it’s kind of weird. He also sets his napkin on the chair next to him, as opposed to his lap. Whatever works, at least he’s using one.
Over at my plate, I’m working my napkins like someone trying to clean up after a flood. I use more napkins than anyone I know. Sometimes I’m eating in a restaurant with a friend, and I’m on my third while theirs is untouched. How do they do that, I wonder?
Alternately, is there something wrong with me? Even if my nose weren’t drippy, I’m wiping my hands and mouth constantly while I eat. Am I leaky and strange? Unduly repelled by food juice? Why am I such a mess?
The last time I ate dinner at my oldest daughter’s home, her in-laws were there. As she set the table, my daughter let me know that her mother-in-law had made this beautiful set of cloth napkins for her. I smiled and complimented her MOL on the beautiful fabric and workmanship. Did I only imagine that we shared a swift but knowing glance?
Acknowledged or not, I’m not the only person who believes in napkins.
They arrived on orange webbed feet, often with blue ribbons tied around their long necks. Waddling and honking, pecking and settling into every kitchen in America. I’m talking about the geese.
In 1981, I was a nanny, and my employer began accumulating the cutest dishes I had ever seen. It started with mugs by a company called Vandor. There were four, each featuring a different farm animal; cow, pig, sheep, and a pair of chickens (no geese, please note).
I know it’s hard to imagine, but at the time, these mugs were unlike anything I’d ever seen before. I was awash in admiration.
This was a fairly prosperous household, so the mugs were followed by salad plates, dinner plates, bowls, canisters, and salt and pepper shakers. There were some white ceramic animal heads on the walls, upon which to hang coordinating towels. Eventually, my employer had an entire kitchen full the stuff. It was amazing, this Vandor Country Collection, but it featured no geese.
My admiration was well expressed. So, when I married in 1982, my employer gifted me a huge box of my own Vandor Country farm animal ceramics. I received the original set of four regular-sized mugs, four miniature mugs with baby animals on them (highlighted by the chick), a pitcher that I’d use as a utensil holder, and salt and pepper shakers. She even got me the metal canisters. All country, all mine (but no geese).
My new husband and I moved to a nice two-bedroom town home, where I used cup hooks to display my barnyard wedding gifts. I found some country blue placemats at the thrift store and set them on the eating bar. Then I won a little blue occasional shelf with heart-shaped cutouts at some direct sales party or another. I hung that up over the pantry door and put some thrift store blue and white china on it.
I am telling you, I had that country décor thing going on. But there were still no geese in my kitchen lineup.
All around me, the geese were taking over America’s kitchens. Those geese had waddled into the world of 80s décor, usually in a line, followed by a little girl wearing a hat.
This is a charming print, isn’t it? But when I described it, you groaned in recognition before you even saw it. So did I. But look at it! It’s nice! And if I hadn’t seen it hanging on the wall of nearly every home I visited during those years, I might have wanted it on my wall, too.
I considered adding the geese as an accent. There were geese salt and pepper shakers, but I liked my Vandor shakers. Avon sold a set of measuring spoons shaped like little individual geese. They were adorable, but I didn’t want to measure out my salt in geese.
There were entire sets of dishes devoted to geese.
The trouble was, I already had floral ditzy dishes that coordinated well with my gooseless Vandor Country ceramics. Those dishes were a wedding present from my former mother-in-law. In all the years she gave me presents, those dishes were the only time she got it right. I wasn’t about to replace them.
There were geese wallpaper borders, but we lived in an apartment. I wasn’t going to risk the damage deposit by doing anything to the walls. There were geese towels. My kitchen towels came to me from my grandmother, who had this whole system where she bought dishtowels, cut them in half, crocheted a button-through hanger and sent them to me for Christmas. Thanks to her crafty generosity, I never bought kitchen towels.
My then-husband tried to come through. For one occasion or another, he gifted me a ceramic tureen, a white fowl along these lines:
But here’s the deal. I think it was a duck, not a goose. I mean, I don’t have a photo of it, but I think it was a very pretty duck. I tied a blue ribbon around its neck, and it sat on the sewing machine cabinet in the dining room, overlooking over the garage sale table and sticky chairs in a somewhat imperious manner.
My maybe-goose-maybe-duck tureen had pride of place. It deserved it. I mean, a tureen is a somewhat grand item, yes? But it was almost too special. By the time my then-husband broke it, I’d only used it once.
…I moved on to dusty pink.
Decorating trends come and go. Grey today, gone tomorrow. The stuff of mania is always packed up and donated eventually, and so it was with America’s 1980s geese. For years, they waddled up and down Goodwill’s knickknack aisle, settling bossily among the shelves of plates and bowls, honking and pecking and reminding me of the eighties. You couldn’t give that stuff away.
But everything old is new again, and other such clichés. The geese have migrated back into American homes. Now, when I see a white goose with a blue ribbon around its neck on Etsy or eBay, I groan at the outrageous prices. I groan, but I smile, too. I always knew they’d be back.
But here’s the thing. If you still love your geese from the 80s, or if you have somehow recently fallen under the spell of the geese, just go to the thrift store. They’re still there. I took this yesterday.