I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels nostalgic this time of year. Not only for Christmases past but for family gatherings and traditions of all kinds that seem to have been lost.
So it’s no surpise, when I read Katie Arnold-Ratliff’s story, The Rise and Fall of the Recipe Card on Slate, I began to think about the lost tradition of hand-writing recipes and what my family recipe box means to me.
My recipe box—a small tin box with flowers painted on the rounded top—belonged to my mother, so it’s only one generation of history, but it chronicles my life in the kitchen. It has recipes from when I was small, my parents were still married and my mother cooked things like Chicken Kiev for dinner parties.
There are recipes for “See’s Fudge” and toffee from a Christmas spent with my mother’s then-husband’s family after my parents divorced. Those recipes are completely different in look and worldliness than my own family’s recipes.
A few fancier cards are from the sisters and mothers of men I dated and for dishes like hot artichoke dip and Brie en croute. These capture a moment in culinary history as much as my own.
Overall, the box is filled with an eclectic collection, but all are significant to me. Equally significant is the one recipe card missing from the box. It was for banana nut bread.
I taught my niece Lauren to bake using that recipe. Year after year, as she grew up she baked that recipe until the card was filthy from splatters and batter on Lauren’s small hands, but in good way. Finally, I had to give the card to her. Not only because of the recipe it detailed but because by then I knew it was a piece of family history for her to keep–her grandmother’s handwriting on a well-used recipe card.
This summer as I began scouring estate sales for vintage kitchenware, I came across a recipe box filled with recipes. I picked it up and brought it home enamored by the history of someone else’s life in the kitchen. A new obsession was born.
So far, I’ve only found two recipe boxes, but both are doozies. The first belonged to a woman who was moving. It contains a small selection of recipes, mostly cookies and most of which have a name written on the top right corner as though the recipe originated with Joan, Edith or Betty Sue. Tucked between the cookie cards are recipes clipped from the newspaper as well. Given the treasure trove of fancy glassware and kitchen items at this sale, it was easy for me to imagine this woman hosting ladies’ lunches where the women gossiped and later called each other on the phone for the recipe of the dish they enjoyed.
The second box I bought from a woman who had just moved from the family ranch in the hills to a small house in town that had belonged to her mother. The recipe box had been hers. She wasn’t planning on cooking from it anymore or keeping it. Her grown children were there when I purchased it so there would be no surprises later.
There is something about buying vintage kitchenware or collecting recipe boxes that is not just about the aesthetics or rarity of the pieces, I actually feel like I’m preserving a little bit of American history. As Katie’s article pointed out, everything and everyone is going digital. And, that includes me. Jack and I have just started a new-media publishing company. So collecting recipe boxes feels like keeping the scales balanced—a handwritten recipe here, an ecookbook there.
The recipe below is from my recipe box. It is written in my handwriting, which means my grandmother dictated it to me when I was old enough to bake and be interested in what it meant to her to bake her son’s favorite cookie. I hope you’ll bake it, write it on to a recipe card and then tuck it into your family’s recipe box. Happy holidays!
My grandmother never baked cookies. She made cakes from scratch, but her baking started and stopped there. Except for Ranger Cookies, which she made for my Uncle Larry because they were his favorite. She also never wrote down recipes. Everything was in her head. When I wanted a recipe, she’d tell me what she did and I’d write it down. My recipe writing skills weren’t so developed then so when I pulled out this recipe it was just a list of ingredients and the oven temperature. Ironically, this and pumpkin pie are the only baking recipes I have from my grandmother, neither of which do I think she ever made for me. Nonetheless, this season I decided to bake these cookies after finding the recipe card in my recipe box.
Yields: 48 cookies
1 cup butter, room temperature
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 cups all-purpose flour (or whole wheat flour)
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon kosher salt
2 cups crispy rice cereal
2 cups old-fashioned oats
1 cup chocolate chips
1 cup shredded coconut
1 cup chopped walnuts
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.
Mix the butter and sugars together an electric mixing bowl until light and fluffy. With the motor running on medium-low, add the eggs one at a time. Add the vanilla. Stop the mixer, scrape down the sides, mix on medium-low until thoroughly mixed.
Remove the bowl from the mixer and stir in the flour, baking soda and salt using a sturdy wooden spoon. Add the cereal, oats, chocolate chips, coconut and walnuts. Stir until all of the ingredients are blended well.
Drop the dough by spoonful onto the baking sheets and bake 10 to 12 minutes. The color will remain pale and is not an indication of doneness. The cookies may also seem a little loose when first removed from the oven. That’s okay. Do not bake any longer or the cookies will become hard and dry.
What to drink: A spritzy Moscato will add a bit of festivity if you serve these cookies for dessert. Try Ceretto Moscato d’Asti would be a terrific choice.