The Simple Life
By Michele Meier Vosberg
Recipes for a Life
I own what must be the ugliest recipe box ever made. It is made of metal and covered with swirls of yellow and orange flowers. I no longer remember how I came to possess it, but now I hide it in the bottom drawer in my kitchen. It is neither frequently enough used nor fashionable enough to leave sit out on the counter. My little recipe box is an anachronistic reminder of the pop art that defined the seventies. The word “hideous” comes to mind. I’ve considered replacing it, but always stop short. There is something about this ugly little box that draws me to it. While looking for my grandma’s blueberry coffee cake recipe one day I realized it is not the box itself, but the contents that intrigue me.
I am a perfunctory cook at best. I admit to having the phone numbers of several pizza take out places at hand at all times. At our house we are equal opportunity pizza consumers. I have House of China on the speed dial on my cell phone so I can call in dinner from the car on the way home. Given any fast food restaurant (and I recognize that I should use the term “restaurant” loosely here) my daughter is able to rattle of the family’s dinner choices without consulting said members. It is fair to say that I am more likely to arrange dinner than to cook it. I am not particularly proud of our culinary lifestyle, but modern life, busy schedules and school activity overload has driven us to it.
And then there is the little box. The contents, like the box itself, are relics from another era. It is filled with family recipes that I could never part with, even though I seldom ever cook any of them. They are little pieces of my childhood, all wrapped up in cream of something soup and Pyrex casserole dishes. They say that before death your life flashes before your eyes. Looking through this recipe box is like a flash of my life’s food story. I never planned it, but looking back, I realize that here are the memories of a childhood written neatly on 3X5 cards and covered with plastic recipe savers.
Under “Salads” is my aunt Liz’s Rainbow Jello Salad. This consists of about a dozen layers of different colored Jello, each hardened before adding the next layer. Some layers are clear and some are creamy, and the end result is a beautiful rainbow of Jello. Liz has been making this salad since I can remember and still brings it to family events. I tried making it once, but I must have been too impatient. Apparently I didn’t wait long enough for each layer to solidify and my Jello turned a sort of brownish color. It was less than appetizing. I long ago gave up on making rainbow Jello, but I will admire it when Liz makes it and recognize the effort of waiting for all those layers to harden. Someday when I am ninety five years old and see this salad I will be reminded of Liz.
My collection includes more than a few casseroles. There is Aunt Helen’s chicken casserole, a recipe I have never made, but enjoyed once. It is typical of the casserole recipes. Take a couple of cups of some sort of noodle. Add some hamburger, tuna or chicken. Toss in a couple cans of creamed soup. This is Wisconsin, so more than likely there is a cup of cheese. Throw something crunchy on top. These casseroles were the staple of dinners in my childhood. Once, when my eldest daughter was about a year old I took her for a physical and the nurse informed me that I could now start feeding her “some of your casseroles.” I was embarrassed to admit that I’d never cooked a casserole. Motherly guilt set in; perhaps I better expand my repertory beyond spaghetti.
Speaking of guilt, no good recipe collection would be complete without desserts, and mine is no exception. “Desserts” is the largest category, which probably explains why in my family there is not a size four to be found. I don’t cook these either, though my mouth drools with the memory of Mom’s Apple Pan Pie, my aunt Elaine’s Coconut Cheese Desert, Diane’s Banana Split Torte, and Grandma Meier’s Molasses Cookies. Somewhere I collected a recipe for Snickerdoodles, and to this day I am a pushover for the smell of them. Bring me a dessert sampler of these things on my deathbed and I will die a happy woman.
In this entire collection, there are just three recipes I make. One is my Grandma Meier’s Blueberry Coffee Cake recipe. Coffee cakes seem a bit old fashioned to me, but I like the idea of sitting around with a bunch of friends having coffee cake and drinking coffee. It never happens in my life. I make this every summer when blueberries are in season and it never fails to delight me. I eat it not with friends, but more likely fresh from the pan while standing at the counter. From my maternal grandmother I took my Christmas cookie recipe. These are sugar cookies, rolled thin and decorated. Everyone raves about them; the secret ingredient is almond flavoring. Once I made a batch for Easter, decorated as chickens and lambs and frosted with pastel colored frosting. My brother came in and announced, “Yum, Christmas cookies,” as he proceeded to eat a handful. Old habits die hard. The third recipe is my mother’s baked rice pudding. This is my ultimate comfort food. It is emotional eating, Dr. Phil would say, but so be it.
And so I’ve become the curator for a rarely used recipe collection. Maybe someday I’ll have the time to take up cooking again and I will resurrect these recipes. Or maybe I will just browse through the cards, conjuring up memories instead of food. I’ll think of friends, former coworkers and long dead relatives. I’ll smile at the thought of eating Mock Chop Suey on my childhood birthdays and making zucchini bread with my aunt Char. I’ll remember the Apricot Salad from countless Thanksgivings and the crème puffs my Grandma VerHagen made when my mom was in the hospital. The memories will nourish my soul as the food once nourished my body.
I put the ugly metal box back in the drawer, to pull out another day. It may be a relic, but I can live with it.