Unlike the antique bronze lamps and the family-themed statuettes I recently inherited from my mother, I became the owner of her oversized recipe collection close to 20 years ago. Around that time, she had moved into an independent living facility that included, in its monthly charge, nightly dinners. But my mother was long done with cooking large dinners years before, when my father, who loved to eat, passed away.
Her box of recipes is not, technically, the same as a recipe box: one of those 5 X 7-inch wood or plastic boxes with 100 index cards and alphabetical markers. The thousands of recipes that she clipped, hand-wrote, and collected through the last four decades required larger accommodations. She chose a two-drawer wide, 16-inch deep, steel filing cabinet. Between the alphabetic dividers, my mother placed nearly 150 storage envelopes, each containing a mini recipe collection. She had an envelope for hot, and one for cold, hors d’oeuvres; one for salad dressings and marinades and one for jams and jellies; one for guest chicken dinners, one for Chinese beef dinners, one for homemade cookies, and everything in between. With its organization and scope, she turned that grey cumbersome box into her own cooking legacy.
I remember my mother stating the obvious, “You’ll find a lot of recipes to choose from,” and then following up with: “I think you’ll enjoy using many of them.”
But I never felt the need. I had my own, far more current recipe books, to consult. Perhaps like many daughters who are similar to their mothers, I retained the adolescent urge to pave my own identity: in this case, my identity as a cook, separate from my mom. I told myself that between my and my husband’s combined intolerances to dairy, eggs, wheat, and soy, and our mostly vegetable-based diet, her recipes were not the right map for our meals. For me, her bulky recipe file, which I stored on our coat closet shelf, was a symbol of the heart and hands that made the food.
Like many in the sixties and seventies, my mother made the kitchen the center of her home. I still picture myself telling her about my day as she peels, chops, and mixes ingredients. Other times, I’m doing my homework at the kitchen table, mostly to inhale the warm, rich smells of slowly simmering soups and baked casseroles. My mother is singing a refrain from one of her favorite Harry Belafonte songs, or the ditty from a Pabst Blue Ribbon beer commercial, which often lit up the screen of our black-and-white television.
My mother cast her cooking net well beyond our four-member family. Often offered – or was nominated – to host holiday meals, served in our finished basement. All my father had to do was remove the net from our ping pong table, spread out two or three tablecloths, and we had an instant dinner table that sat 25-30 mostly ravenous relatives.
Weeks before the big night, my mother consulted her recipe cabinet for the hors d’oeuvres, soups, salads, and vegetable complements for her medium rare roast beef with braised potatoes and onions, and a turkey, with skin the color of honey. There were tureens of cold gazpacho soup, or piping hot pea soup, or chicken soup, depending on the season and occasion: spring roll and meatball appetizers, and a large garden salad with strips of red cabbage, diced scallions, cut radish and carrot shavings. Her side dishes included sweet potatoes with marshmallows, mushroom barley pilaf, swiss chard with tomato sauce, zucchini, and carrot cake for dessert. Throughout the meal, there was the clatter of all the cousins walking up and down the stairs, bringing new dishes, and refilling platters. My mother was a modest woman. Her cooking had nothing to do with showing off. It was about making people happy in the unique way that serving a delicious meal can.
For many years, she eagerly asked if I had been using her recipes. I told her yes, which wasn’t a complete fabrication, given that elements of her dishes were always in my own. I, too, used minced and sauteed onion, garlic, carrots, and celery, as a base for most of my soups. To this day, my garden salads remain, like hers, colorful and diverse.
In her mid-eighties, when her memory began to wane, my mother dropped the recipe question completely. By that time, she was on a restricted diet with no spices, sauces, or condiments to worsen the burning in her esophagus. Food was no longer important to her. “I can’t eat anything tasty anyway,” my mother often said.
Before visiting her, I cooked and froze batches of stuffed cabbage, substituting homemade vegetable soup for tomato sauce. My mother and I used to make stuffed cabbage together. It was a feel-good meal, and although I had to make it bland, I loved cooking it for her.
As time passed, she was no longer able to feed herself. During my monthly visits, I brought up her dinner from the community dining room. I mashed her bland piece of fish and sweet potato with a fork, as her full-time aide had, and then dropped small spoonsful of food into her gaping mouth, like a mother bird feeding her baby.
By the time my mother turned 91, her dementia had advanced. She still ate, but her body no longer assimilated nutrients. My mother passed in my arms in January 2020, about a month before COVID-19 arrived with its unique venomous bite. Given her age, my mother’s death wasn’t tragic, but that doesn’t lessen the degree to which I miss her. Nor my desire to make aspects of her life a deeper part of my own.
The other day, during a prolonged period of nostalgia, I asked my husband to take down my mother’s recipe cabinet from a shelf in our coat closet. My husband and I both dove in like archaeologists excavating a precious site. We noted together her precise printing, and recipe clippings, many yellowed with age, others torn on the top from use, one with a seed from an eggplant dish still affixed to it. With the recipes before me, I was able to imagine more fully the rainbow of colors and symphony of smells that were my mother’s dishes.
We counted close to 200 vegetable and vegetarian dishes, many of which we look forward to adapting. It feels good – and even just – to bring my mother’s cooking spirit out from the closet and into my kitchen.
And yes, Mom, I’m using your recipes…and enjoying them.