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.