This morning my dad handed me a faded green Amalfi shoe box. On one side was written “Black Strap” in my grandmother’s handwriting. I would recognize that capital B anywhere. Inside were hundreds of recipes, most from in her cursive style, with detailed instructions for preparing them. The things she would have said if she were teaching me how to cook.
She taught me how to scramble eggs and chop apples for the Waldorf salad that she served at every family meal. But there were never lessons on “Fabulous Blueberry Cheesecake” or Tagliarini with ground sausage, ground beef, pasta and different kinds of cheese. I am going to cook these with my boys and try to pass her memory down to them.
We will start with making the “Orange Kiss Me Cake.” Did she smile when she wrote that one down or feel a little flirty as she watched it bake? I also found her recipe for fudge that is so good I made myself sick eating too much of it one Christmas Eve.
There were dishes I have never heard of or saw her prepare. “Cranberry Candles Salad” where the mixed ingredients are poured into the empty juice cans and chilled. Her note says, “To Flame: cut thin birthday candles in half to shorten. Insert into the cranberry candles and light.” Where did she make candles out of congealed cranberry mix, light them and then tell people to eat them?
There are several recipes for barbecue sauce, including “Apricot-Orange Winter Barbecue Sauce.” Was this before they sold sauce in a jar at the Jitney?
Some recipes go back to the time when phone numbers looked like 4-55520 (the recipe was for fig consume) and women named Pearl, May May, Mabel and Blanche swapped recipes on personalized recipe cards. There is one for Rowena’s Peach Pickles and another written down for her stepmother, a woman who could be unkind.
There are recipes on the backs of programs and even tickets. If she liked a dish she went into the kitchen and wrote the ingredients down on the only piece of paper she could find. A recipe for something with caramel, orange peel, orange juice and quick rice was squeezed on the back of a banquet ticket the size of a business card. Some recipes were written on hotel notepads from the Palmer House in Chicago or the Tan-Terra resort in the Ozarks. Ingredients for single acting baking powder were written on a scrap of paper from Nichols Motor Inn in Clarks Summit, Pennsylvania. One of the earliest is a biscuit recipe on the back of an envelope postmarked 1942 when stamps were 1 ½ cents.
A recipe for something with orange and lemon peels was written on a library newsletter from 1975 with a quote at the top from Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Nothing is more simple than greatness; indeed, to be simple is to be great.”
The recipe for an Apricot Pecan Ball sounds awful but it includes Apricot Brandy. Maybe she snuck that in on our family of prohibitionists.
There are notes in parenthesis and illustrations like she knew one day I was going to need all of the help I can get to try these on my own. “…when the dough becomes too stiff to beat with a regular beater (if your machine has a dough hook you can do the entire operation with a mixing bowl).” Grandmama, what is a dough hook and what did you spill on the back page of these instructions?
She underlined a warning for Peanut Butter Penuche: Do not stir the peanut butter it in. Let it cool.
I want to know the story behind the Combo Gumbo recipe that includes a 3 lb. broiler-fryer, bacon drippings, shrimp, ham hocks, cooked ham and soft shell crabs. That sounds so good I may have to hire someone to make it right. Who did she prepare the gumbo for and where did she get the recipe?
The recipes also show the stages and stories of her life. There was a note with a recipe from her beloved friend Milly who once took us to the World’s Fair in Knoxville, Tennessee. She thanked my grandmother for being a wonderful traveling companion and laughed about them missing the bus in Chinatown.
After my grandfather’s heart attack, recipes changed from the rich ingredients of sugar, Karo syrup, butter and eggs into to salt substitutes, wild rice and egg beaters. She made her own yogurt and mayonnaise to keep her man around for many more years.
Grandmama’s handwriting changed as she got older and the cursive became bigger and looser. This is style I remember from my letters at camp that gave me the family news and encouraged me to hang in there when I felt alone. And always that she was proud of me. The last notes in the shoebox were from 1989 about cooking with seasons lessons and Masterclass cooking sessions in New York City.
She changed a few years later when dementia crept in. It started with losing keys and one day she had to quit cooking because it was too dangerous. An unfair ending for my brilliant grandmother who raised four kids and then went back to school at age 60 to get her Ph.D. to help people with disabilities. 45 years ago, she started a developmental center that still provides employment, community living, day services and vocational training for people with physical and intellectual disabilities.
It was painful to watch the memories and her personality slowly fade away. We knew we were losing her and couldn’t get her back. Today a shoebox gave me a few pieces from the woman who is still one of the biggest lights in my life.
I inherited my Grandmama’s heart for helping others, but not her love for cooking. I am scared I also inherited the genes that will one day attack my memories and shut down the life that I love. This is a reminder to keep filling up my own shoebox of stories and adventures to pass down to my kids. Maybe one day they will find it, recognize the familiar writing, and remember the best parts of who I was, too.2