Thine to Inherit: Homage to the Family Recipe Box

By Susan Sundwall

Several years ago, during a coffee break discussion with one of my daughters-in-law, the subject came up of who would be leaving what to whom when family members die. Smiling, Kate suddenly blurted, “I’d like to have your recipe box.” Her request took me by surprise because if you could see my recipe box you’d wonder why on earth anyone would want it. It’s an old plastic flip top box about the size of a large shoebox. I got it when I joined a recipe club back in the late 70s, and I’ve been cramming recipes into it ever since.

I know, I know, in this day and age when everyone has access to a computer there’s no excuse for me not to get that box organized. Those recipes should be copied anew into a Word document, filed alphabetically, sourced (who gave me this one anyway?) and then I should hold a ceremonial bonfire to dispatch the old ones. That would be the efficient modern way to do it. My daughter-in-law would be so proud. But, but…hang on a minute. There’s another, more sentimental, side to the story.

How could I toss out the index card with my friend Carol’s recipe for granola on it? She gave it to me almost thirty years ago right after she shared a bowl of it with me in her kitchen. It’s crammed full of bran, coconut, oatmeal and nuts. It’s baked and sweet and crunchy. I was so impressed that she’d made it herself. Written out in her own handwriting, it’s impossible that I should throw that one out or several others she gave me, like her grandmother’s banana salad or her decadent chocolate sauce. The distinct squiggles and swirls that characterize her penmanship are too precious, especially now that she’s in a care facility suffering from dementia.

And, what about the recipe for German Apple Cake, with cream cheese frosting, from my Mom? The first time I tasted it was the year she sent it across the country to us in a Christmas package. It was one of those holiday treats you sneak back into the fridge for right after you’d already had your “official” piece on a plate. Yeah, that good. The index card for that one is batter-splattered and smudged with cinnamon – impossible to replicate in a Word document.

My recipe for hamburger soup is neatly penned and protected inside a plastic sleeve. It was given to me many years ago by one of the prettiest seventy-year-olds I ever knew. I’d teased her badly about the very idea of a hamburger soup, and then I tasted it. Oh, yum! Before moving to Alaska to live with her daughter, my lovely blue-eyed friend handed me the recipe. Hamburger soup is bubbling away on the stovetop as I write this. Smells pretty darn good, too.

The recipes I’ve clipped from magazines “ain’t never gonna” come back. One, for a cheesy bean casserole with a biscuit top, shows a man with a humongous 1970s afro digging into the dish with a huge spoon. Where in the world would I ever find that again? Same goes for Susan’s Macaroni and Cheese, a recipe from an old Family Circle magazine, and the pecan turtle cookies I make almost every year at Christmas.

There’s a whole lot of family history in that recipe box. The oldest recipe, and boy is that thing splattered, is for my Mom’s date nut bread. I’ve made that bread during the holidays every year for almost forty years. Another oldie but goodie is from my Aunt Delia for her renowned chocolate cake. It’s almost as good as the old McCall’s magazine recipe I inherited from Mom called “The Perfect Chocolate Cake.” The first time I made it I made notations on the back of the paper. “Make sure you grease and flour all pans – even non-stick.” I guess part of my cake was reluctant to leave its cozy non-stick home. I just hate digging a cake out of the pan, don’t you? I also noted that it’s necessary to sift the powdered sugar and to level the layers before baking since one layer came out lopsided that first time. I had to level it after baking. But I’m sure I made a tasty little snack of that cut off piece, probably to go with the fresh cup of coffee I always seem to want when I’m baking.

Maybe my daughter-in-law knew what she was asking for or maybe not. She always raves about my cooking, but she’ll get more than recipes in that box. She’ll inherit a family gem that neither diamond nor ruby can match. I suppose if I searched the Internet long enough, I could come up with some of these recipes or something close, but what fun would that be? How could those recipes know about my Aunt Delia, and how everyone looked forward to chocolate cake day? How could they convey the simultaneous joy and sadness I feel when I look at my friend’s handwriting and wonder how she’s doing in assisted living? There are friends, Grandma, Mom, aunts, memories and a whole lot of history in that box, not just recipes. So, I’ll keep my all-jammed-up old flip top container just the way it is, because I want to leave my children something unique and precious; splatters, blurred ink, cautions, torn corners and all!

About this writer

  • Susan Sundwall Susan Sundwall is a freelance writer and children’s playwright. She is currently working on her second cozy mystery and hopes that her first will be published soon.

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2 Responses to “Thine to Inherit: Homage to the Family Recipe Box”

  1. Marion Tickner says:

    A great article that made me think back to my collection of recipes, especially those passed on by my mother.

  2. Loved this article! Learned about it in Writing for Dollars. As someone who has a binder of recipes collected over years from friends, magazines, and local farmstands, I agree that the computerized versions of recipes just aren’t the same. Keep your wonderful tradition alive…

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