05/16/2012 11:25 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Recipes We Keep

Although my mom really didn't cook, she did have a little recipe box, about six inches long and three inches wide; blue with flowers, I think, and a cover that hinged back and over when it opened. Inside were a number of index cards, some stained with use but many not. It occupied an unloved corner of counter back by the refrigerator, until the day it disappeared into a drawer, never to be seen again.

All the moms had them, so I figured it was just standard kitchen gear, even though I'd never seen ours being consulted. I hadn't thought of a recipe box at all in years until this afternoon, when my friend Eva pulled hers out.

Eva and I go way back. We met at our first job out of college and bonded over our mutual twisted humor and terminal disorganization. That was in the late '80s. We were young 20-somethings, dating, trying to figure out where we'd go in this life.

Fast forward many years. I'd driven up for a visit, and now sat in her kitchen, bemused as she searched for a recipe. She had promised to make an apple cake for her young son's teacher appreciation day, and was digging through her recipe box, stuffed with every manner of paper, each one with a recipe scribbled on it. Index cards and receipts, scrap paper, paper torn from magazines. No attempt at order or classification. She hadn't changed at all.

"You're worse than me," I laughed. "And that's saying something."

But as she pulled out scraps of paper and reminisced about each one, I got to thinking about the recipes we keep.

They say that with the ever-growing popularity of the iPad, which is easy to set up in the kitchen while you call up recipes from the Internet, cookbooks and the scrawled recipe on paper will be going the way of the rotary phone. I don't agree.

There is a lot to be said for the recipe written out on paper. People have a deep love of ephemera that may take another generation or two to breed out of us. Besides which, nobody wants to ruin a $500 iPad with buttery fingerprints and spilled tomato sauce.

Maybe it's my age, but I just print recipes I get from the Internet out anyway, and tape them on the cupboard in front of  me. They still get stained. I wonder in what cold, technical world people making food for other people would come to prefer pixels on a screen to words your mom or a friend once wrote on the back of a notecard. One way is information.  The other is community and tradition.

That's how I think of it, anyway, when I open an old cookbook and a recipe for tamale pie written by my late stepmother 35 years ago falls out. I can hardly read her scrawl, but that's the point; it makes me smile and think of her, and all the love she gave us through her meals.

Every recipe we keep is a memory as much as any photo. Why did we ask for this recipe? Who gave it to us? Why did we clip it out of this magazine? Remember when this newspaper even had a food section?


I have old recipes written by hand on index cards by aunts, cousins. I have recipes from my late stepmother. I have recipes sent to me years ago by a good friend from grad school then living in Italy. She was a notoriously good cook, and I asked her to send me some of her favorite dishes. She faxed them to me in San Francisco, where I lived then with my new husband. I have them still, stained, curled, faded ... and still in regular rotation. Every time I pull them out of my stack of recipes I'm reminded of the circumstances under which she sent them; our strange new grown-up lives, our new babies, our distance from each other, but our ongoing friendship. She lives on the East Coast now, we're in our '40s and our babies are teenagers. Those recipes help tie the passing years together.

Eva eventually finds the apple cake recipe. It's really easy, she promises, and she promises to write the recipe down for me before I go. Her six-year-old son gobbles this by the plateful, until we cut him off. Hey, we laugh. It's got apples... how bad can it be for him?

Here it is for you, too. Write it down in your own hand and try it. Then pass it on to someone you love:

Eva's Apple Cake:

2 cups chopped raw apples
1 egg
1 cup sugar
1/4 cup grape seed or some other light oil
1 tsp. cinnamon
1 cup chopped nuts
1 cup raisins
1 cup flour
1 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt

Mix all together and bake in a square pan greased with butter and flour for 45 minutes at 350 degrees.