When we emptied my late mother’s house earlier this year, we found a large kitchen drawer full of papers. Most of them were recipes: cut from a magazine; torn from the newspaper; taken from the back of a pack; neatly hand-written; passed on from a friend or family member; scribbled on the back of a to do list. These recipes had been accumulating for decades and, at some point, I think Mum had planned to make order of them. In that same drawer were 2 empty books, into which I suspect she planned—one day—to stick the recipes.
I took the papers home in a box and over a few nights in front of the TV, I sorted them. Among the recipes, I found things so dated no-one would consider making them today: think casserole chicken a la king and veal bake with cashew cheese. And I found treif recipes that no one in the (now kosher) family would cook, such as fairy pork or lobster and cantaloupe salad. A calendar from the local butcher of our childhood—Mr Broadhead—with “meat recipes” on the back transported me back to the early 1970s and memories of errands to buy meat. I found a recipe for my aunt’s spiced yoghurt cake, which I’ve yearned for since the 1980s. Mum only made it once or twice because Dad didn’t like it. But I remember loving it. Some handwritten scrawls are indecipherable as recipes, but they are in Mum’s familiar hand, along with a planned menu, or a reminder to herself to call a friend or pick up the dry cleaning. One of my favourite finds is a recipe for borscht in Yiddish, with Mum’s hand-marked language corrections.
I’ve kept them all. And I’ve now made order of them: one book of savoury recipes, one book of sweets. In putting the books together, I’ve travelled a journey with Mum. If we had done this together, I imagine she would have thrown most of them out. But this is not a cookbook. It’s a history of our mother’s cooking aspirations throughout her married life—the earliest recipe I found with a date was from March 1964, a month before I was born, but I think there are also recipes from the NY Times, which would be from 1962, the year Mum and Dad married and were living in New York City. And recipes from every following decade.
I organised the recipes in a traditional way, grouping like with like, not chronologically. So, Mum’s life story jumps around, just as my memories of her do, recalling a moment from childhood followed by a recent conversation or experience.
As Mum’s health declined, grand-daughter Rebecca was desperate to get Savta’s delicious meatball recipe. All that came from her conversation with Savta on that topic was the dictate to “first, do everything very, very carefully”, probably Mum’s guiding rule for life, although not one she applied to the storage of her recipes. In the jumble of papers, I found a typed meatball recipe. We will try it. Maybe, maybe, it will be the memory that Rebecca is looking for.