So I’m finally returning to the topic of family recipe boxes after a helluva time, but that’s another blog post. Some friends sent long and detailed stories(which I love), and others dashed off a note to go with their photo (which I also love). Sometimes we even get the recipes (I love that too)! You can right click on any image and open in a new tab to get a clear view of any recipe cards.
I thought I’d kick it off with my Grandma Berry’s recipe box. My grandmother died some time ago, and my dad brought this back from Minnesota with quite a few other keepsakes after Grandpa Berry died, years later.
I think this was one of those subscription recipe boxes popular in the seventies. It has those plastic cards, plus recipes clipped from magazines and newspapers, and standard recipe cards in many different hands.
The tape across the back speaks of constant use. The dust on the top speaks to the fact that I have never opened it until today.
And now, on to the others.
My cousin Amy says: THE recipe box. I went through it – few things in there that I recognize as recipes I would consider saving. Most are 50’s era recipes saved from the back/side/inside label of boxes, cans, and bags of preserved foods. Yum! <—familial sarcasm here
My recipe box, box obtained as a freshman in high school for the debate team.
Karen’s note: The top photos are the recipe box I returned to cousins on my South Dakota side, talked about in this post: Recipe Boxes Part One. I’m glad it found its way home, even though it sounds like the contents are not that inspiring. And I tend to forget all the uses we had for index cards back in the day, including debate notes and indexing term papers.
April says: First, I have nothing from my grandmothers. One only spoke Spanish, the other died when I was five. I only remember her sauerkraut was very good (the Latvian grandmother, obviously). I have two recipe boxes, both given to me from my mom. I’m sure she got the big, ugly orange one free from Betty Crocker.
Most of the recipes I attached were the handwritten ones from mom. She usually sent printed recipes with her notes on the edges. The carrot cake was from Susan, and the cereal one was from Dad.
I don’t know if you knew I won a recipe contest from BH&G one year. You basically sell your recipe to them, and they give you a nice award to frame and several copies of your recipe as shown, as well as a mention in the magazine. I have no idea what prompted me to do it, but was shocked I was one of the winners. It was before pesto was a thing in the US. I thought you’d get a kick out if that one.
Karen’s note: April is a fantastic cook and a vegetarian who modestly omitted that she won a blue ribbon for her pineapple pie at a fair when she lived in Oklahoma. She has never made that pie for me. She also never made her BH&G prize-winning pesto for me. But she’s served me plenty of other delicious dishes, so we’re good.
Joni says: What I have is not a family box but recipes written on scraps. I even have some from Peter’s great aunt written on a small piece of paper with an old fruitcake recipe. Others are older books from family. Here’s a Facebook post about my recipes.
I love my cookbooks. It’s not that I see them as the unbendable rules of culinary art but more as the Bob Ross variety of suggestions that maybe this soup needs a happy bit of fennel in that corner of the pot. In fact I can go for months and not pull one out, but so many of them have a memory attached.
I have rather battered books from my late aunts both of whom cooked for a living. One is a small green book held together by black plastic rings. It is from one of the many small church women’s group. This one is from the Martha Circle and is dated 1954. The advertisements carry telephone numbers of only three numbers. The recipes can be challenging to decipher and I would get Mom to explain directions such as ‘take a ten cent bag of marshmallows.’ It is the stuff of ’Prairie Home Companion,’ much of it is white-soup based with only a hint of bell pepper or pimento to accent the purity.
CUSTARD HOT DISH
6 dry bread slices (buttered and cubed) 3 eggs beaten
1 cup grated cheese salt
2 cups scalded milk pepper
Pinch of dry mustard
Bake in a slow oven in a pan of hot water (about 275)
About 1 hour. Heat together:
1 cup cream of mushroom soup 1 can of tuna fish
Serve over custard hot dish
This not to say that the recipes are not good. Some are sturdy farm dishes, others just a bit daring and trendy. But when it comes to breads, cookies, and cakes, nothing-but-nothing can beat Minnesota farm baking. Bars, pies, cakes, and hot dish.
I grew up on ‘Hot Dish.’ Our family recipe was overcooked macaroni with browned hamburger, and a can each of Campbell’s Tomato and Vegetable Soup. Absolutely loathe the stuff to this day.
My then brother-in-law gave me two small paper cookbooks that he found while ripping out a wall when remodeling a kitchen. This little treasures have so many weird and wonderful items. The 1930s cover has stylishly uniformed maids and contains Jellied Prunes as a temptation. I think I’ll pass.
Peter has added his contribution with his copy of Elizabeth Craig’s ‘Cooking in Wartime,’ a lovely little volume produced with the forthcoming rationing in mind.
GREEN PEA LOAF
1 Cup drained, canned green ¾ cup stale breadcrumbs
peas, or sieved, soaked, 1 beaten egg
and boiled dried peas. ¾ cup milk
½ can tomato soup salt and pepper
For 4 persons. Rub peas through sieve. Stir in other ingredients. Mix well, and pack into a small, greased baking tin or fireproof dish. Cover with greased paper. Bake in a slow oven for forty minutes. Turn out on to a hot dish. Cover with half a can of heated tomato soup.
Now my shelf has a wide variety of books some are reprints of old ones like ‘THE FRUGAL COLONIAL HOUSEWIFE’ which has a recipe for humble pie, or a modern printing of medieval recipes with my favorite one beginning ‘First you take a peacock and break its neck, then flay it, feathers and all.’ Most have one or two recipes that I use as a guide because, lets face it, I don‘t like being told what to do.
Italian, Mexican, Vietnamese represented exotic places I wanted to learn about. Others have even more meaning as they are inscribed by the one who gave them to me. My aunts, a cousin, my mothers good friend, Berta and the one that means the world to me is inscribed ’to the sister of my soul’ from Joni Kay. The funny thing is it’s one that has both American and European measurements so it’s a handy guide when trying to convert English recipes to my American brain. Someday, maybe, I will use these books for cooking but if I don’t that’s all right. They give comfort. They connect me with history, transport me to far away lands and they reunite me with people no longer here. They bring me comfort and warmth to my soul and if I never use them to cook again it’s okay; they’ve done their job.
Karen’s note: Joni lives in England now, if you couldn’t tell by her husband’s contribution. The post above was originally a 2013 post on her Facebook page. She advises me that the curry recipe calls for a small piece of ginger, which her friend tells her is the size of a thumb, if you’re going to try to make it.
Carli says: My box is part hand-me-down. The photo of the three cards is Grandma’s writing at top, for a beloved family recipe, a carb nightmare they fed the kids when the adults had to make meat go farther, mom in the middle with a classic that matches that 70s card, me age 10 or so on the bottom with a recipe I think from a kid cooking class. I have no idea who “Diane” is that I got the recipe from, but something makes me think it was a Saturday kids’ cooking class.
Karen’s note: I love a good carb nightmare! And find three generations of recipe writing quite impressive. Also, April’s mom had the same recipe cards.
Deneane says: Flowered box was Mama’s, brown box was Nana’s. Dad pulled his favorite recipe from each. He never uses these boxes, but still keeps them at his home. I’ll be there the 23rd (to watch him skydive).
Karen’s note: Hot sausage and sauce, creamy pralines. Can you tell Deneane is from the South? I’ve known Deneane for decades, and I met Deneane’s dad when they passed through Portland on a train trip through the West, so he could complete his goal to see all 50 states. We had a quick visit in Chinatown during their layover.
Over lunch, Deneane took out her phone and blithely showed me a photo of an enormous golden heap of a bear they’d seen at one of Montana’s national parks. Shaken, I explained this was a grizzly, and they were lucky to be alive. “Well, he was between us and the car,” her dad said. I’m not surprised that a man who calmly walked past a grizzly on his way back to a parking spot would also jump out of an airplane. For her favorite family dessert recipe, visit Deneane’s blog, The Wretched Cook:
Marsha says: This was my mom’s, our family box! I have my husband’s family box too but it’s not as charming. Let me know what else you want?
Karen’s note: This is enough, Marsha, because it’s possibly the most charming vintage recipe box I have ever seen, with the possible exception of my own.
Tiffany says: Very plain, but stuffed with Mom’s faves. My sister has it.
Karen’s note: You call it plain, but I find it beautiful. Look at that foil design. It’s Art Deco. And I am interested in the full recipe for Dark Zuchini Bread, do you have it?
Janet H.M. says: My mom still has a 1950’s Fannie Farmer cookbook. I got this little recipe box when I was in elementary school. The hinged lid came off years ago, and I put new recipes in a computer file or notebook, but I refuse to throw this out.
Karen’s note: Never throw it out, Janet. Trust me. It’s a legacy for your daughter. One day she’s going to crave that Meal-in-One Pot Roast, and there it will be, just waiting for her.
Mari says: Made for me by my daughter when she was still a kid.
Karen’s note: I love anything shaped like a house. What cozy, homey delights reside in there?
(There are two and they are both wonderful)
1. The Green Notebook
The battered green notebook is my mom’s handwritten recipe collection and one of my most prized possessions. It’s probably the thing I’d save in a fire if I’m being honest. Just reading her beautiful handwriting and looking at the stained pages takes me right back to my childhood kitchen. It is filled with an eclectic array of recipes from the homiest of fares to the fanciest of party foods. Snickerdoodles to tea sandwiches.
My parents were children of the Depression who strove to be more while still being humble. They ended up being a fun couple of bohemians who just wanted to taste the world, feed everyone, and take care of people.
Both of my parents were quite experimental in the kitchen so eating was always an adventure. Whatever Julia Child or The Galloping Gourmet were cooking that week we were bound to be eating soon. Of course, we had had our share of S.O.S. and Hungry Man dinners on those nights when mom wanted a break but it was soon back to souffle, filbert cheese stuffed onions, and beef bourguignonne.
I always remember that when I invited my friends for dinner, they thought it was so cool that they were always served wine just like the adults but…the food was weird. The next time they were invited they always asked, “uh…what are you having?” before committing to actually staying for dinner. Squid, it was a no. Tacos, it was a yes!
2. The Haunted Cookbook
After my mom passed away in 1979 one of the things I missed the most was baking with her at Christmas.
Months after her passing, I ran across her old Spritz cookie press in the kitchen cupboard. Feeling nostalgic, I decided I wanted to make Spritz cookies for Christmas that year. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the recipe.
I called my dad at work to ask if he had it. He said it was probably in her Betty Crocker cookbook, it was on the bookshelf in his kitchen, and that I should just use my key to let myself in to get it.
When I got to his house I found her cookbook right where he said on the bookshelf. There was a scrap of paper sticking out of it. Curiously, I opened the book to the marked page, and SURPRISE, it was marking the page for Spritz cookie recipes that I wanted. On that scrap of paper was a note in my mom’s handwriting that read “All recipes on the page will work in the press – please do not take my book – Love Mom”.
My heart almost stopped, I got goose bumps all over and I knew in the moment that she was still looking out for me.
In 2001 my dad passed away. I packed up all the treasures from his house that I wanted to keep, moved them to my house, and then held an estate sale. Many months later I was getting ready to bake some cookies and went to get the Betty Crocker cookbook. It was nowhere to be found. Somehow it must have been left at my dad’s and sold at the estate sale. I was heartbroken.
Close to a year later, I stopped in at my friend’s bookstore, Churchill’s. While visiting I happened to glance up at the case near the cash register and there sat a copy of a Betty Crocker cookbook just like the one I lost. I picked it up and almost fainted. Inside and on the cover were the scribbles that I had made as a child. It was my mom’s cookbook! When I asked my friend where he had gotten the cookbook, he said someone had brought it in and sold it to them that morning.
Once again I could feel my mom’s warm arms around me. She was still looking out for me through her cookbook.
She’s now safe at home with me contained in a shadow box; cookbook, note, her personal measuring spoons (that I’ve kept all these years), and a photo of her.
I bought a replacement cookbook to use.
Karen’s note: Lisa’s parents were restaurateurs in Yakima, including a beautiful place called The Abbey. I never ate at one of her family establishments. I wish I had! Also, we have these same aluminum measuring spoons from my own mom, along with an aluminum biscuit cutter with a bent red handle she used to cut out the best biscuits I’ve ever tasted.
Janet L says: Our neighbors in the 1960s were the Mellingers. A least two generations of that family still make these oatmeal chocolate chip cookies, and call them Marian Happe Cookies. There is a quick & easy take on flourless chocolate torte. It’s not as intensely chocolatey, but it’s tasty. And a few more!
Karen’s note: Janet is another of the vegetarian/incredible cook people. Her baked goods are the stuff of urban legend, but the hilarious thing is, we always went out to lunch when she lived in Portland, so I never had any! When I asked Janet if there were a box to go with these recipes, she replied, “I don’t know what became of mom’s box. I bought my beige plastic filecard box in the 1980s. It is not photogenic.” So she shared her favorite contents, which I understand, but seriously, Janet, ugly recipe boxes are still treasures.
Sue says: The box is Norma’s. Norma is Mom. The meatballs and fudge recipes are Norma’s. The potato chocolate cake and peanut butter cookie recipes are from Norma’s mother, Maude.
Karen’s note: Sue is another fantastic cook. If she picked these recipes to share, you can bet they’re delicious. Everything she does with her hands–cooking, quilting, painting–is done with such a sure hand. Exact without being overly exacting. Artful with an innate naturalness. I first became aware of this when I visited her after spending a month making gummy little worked over salt dough Christmas ornaments with my kids. Sue had a couple she’d made in her kitchen, they were smooth and perfect and lovely. I took one look at those unimportant little ornaments and understood that she was an artist through and through.
Karen’s note: As a woman who specializes in concise communication, Carrie sent no anecdotes, but she inherited this from her mom. It is repurposed drawers from a library card catalog. It reminds me of my own mother’s, an antique dovetailed wooden box used for some aspect of business storage. It held a jumble of recipes on cards written in her own indecipherable hand, recipes given to her by friends, and folded up recipes torn from newspapers and women’s magazines. Like I said in my other post, we used it to hold her ashes, so I know just exactly where it’s buried. I have never known what happened to all the recipes.
To wrap this all up, I thought I’d put in a pic of my own vintage recipe box, the one my mother kept for years (right). Beside it are the other vintage recipe boxes I meant to fill for my own girls. I thought this was something I would never, could never do. I’m feeling inspired by this post to attempt it. Sooner or later, they’re going to want to know how I made my food taste like it does, and only I can tell them.
Thank you again, lovely friends, for playing along.
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.