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Joan Brewer: Recipe box unleashes a flood of nostalgia

Truman Capote’s “A Christmas Memory” is a classic story. It’s one of my very favorites. In it, he relives his rural, rather lonely childhood in the South as Christmas draws near. Making fruitcakes for Christmas gifts plays a central role in the story.

Recently, while looking through my recipes, I felt a similar nostalgia for times long past. A kind neighbor had given me the recipe for some luscious chocolate mocha cookies. I dutifully copied it onto a three-by-five card and put it in my rather ancient recipe file, which is a metal-hinged box, most likely given to me upon my marriage in 1957. The gaily decorated box would qualify as an antique in 2015.

As I put the new recipe in the box, filed under “cookies” of course, I began to go through the contents. Some of the tattered yellow papers were barely legible. Most were handwritten or typed the old-fashioned way on someone’s Remington. Some recipes were almost completely faded away. Some were in my mother’s unmistakable neat cursive hand. (Mother passed away in 1952.) What was I thinking? Seldom or never cooking or baking using her ideas for a good meal?

Other recipes were from people who were my good friends during my 33 years as a teacher. Some are no longer on this Earth, but their cookies and other delights live on.

It was then that I realized how our tastes have changed. What struck me were the ones calling for lard, bacon grease and great amounts of sugar – all the things now deemed off-limits if you want to live to a ripe old age. No calling for kale or brightly colored vegetables in those babies. It was interesting to compare the 50- or 60-year-old recipes with those I have filed in the last 10 years. Back then there were lots of hearty casseroles, cakes, pies and other desserts. Where were the vegetable recipes? Beans and greens, anyone? My guess is that the abundance of fresh and frozen vegetables and fruit that we take for granted today just wasn’t available to many in the 1930s or 40s, when I was growing up. People cooked from scratch using the recipes that we would now consider unhealthy.

I also suspect that lots of recipes were handed down from relatives and friends, more so than today. There were magazines with recipes and cookbooks, of course, but they seemed to take a back seat to the tried-and-true, handed-down recipes. Today if one wants a new recipe, it’s so easy to find one on the Internet. They are there by the millions.

It would be possible to trace one’s life via the recipe box, providing you have lived to a ripe old age. Think about it. The recipes would most likely be by and for a female, though not necessarily. Maybe as a teenager you would find recipes for fudge or popcorn balls. As a young wife, there would be main dish recipes and desserts. As a working woman and/or mother, you might find quick-cooking menus. And, of course, desserts would find their way into the recipe box. Who doesn’t like desserts?

When I filed the recipe for mocha cookies, I never expected to spend an entire afternoon looking at old, time-worn “receipts,” as they were called once upon a time. Many memories of friends and relatives came flooding back. What a wonderful legacy their recipes leave!

Will I ever find the courage to go through my old metal box and throw away some of the recipes? Don’t count on it.