THE INTERNET has given us the ability to access millions of recipes and share them instantaneously. We post favorite dishes on Facebook, create food blogs, Google obscure and exotic ingredients. Without a doubt, propping my iPad on the kitchen island is a convenient and paperless way to cook.
But for recipes that are personal and have history, I open my old recipe-card collection. The plastic file box itself is nothing special. Colored index cards are taped with recipes cut out of magazines and newspapers or, more recently, printed from the Internet. The real treasures are those that were written by hand.
It is a collection not only of recipes but of memories, of people and of places. Snapshots.
In my own awkward third-grade cursive, a favorite recipe for German Pancakes. Also from childhood: Yogurt-Berry Mousse and Orange Julius. As my handwriting changed over the years, so, too, did my eating habits. Recent additions tend toward the ethnic and vegetarian, dairy- and gluten-free. The evidence is undeniable: at one point, I really did make potato-cheese soup.
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Mrs. Kann’s Apple Turnovers, from my home economics teacher in Portland.
Unmistakable, my mom’s handwriting, for Vichyssoise. And a relic from her old Olympia typewriter, Sole with Mornay Sauce. Both of these from a time when she cooked with heavy cream.
Smothered Pheasant, written in lovely script by my aunt Carol. It was my grandmother’s recipe, and I made it only once, on my dad’s birthday.
During my first trip to France, the homestay “mother” (who didn’t have any children of her own, but that’s beside the point) took me to her mother’s house in the hills of Provence one day. Her mother had prepared a fantastic Dijon rabbit for lunch and floating islands for dessert. I’d never seen white meringue swimming in crème anglaise, and it blew my mind. Even though I’ve lost touch with the host family, the directions for Les Iles Flottantes remain, in blue ink and nearly illegible French handwriting.
Handwriting from a college boyfriend who took it upon himself to copy several recipes for me. A few years later, he died in an accident in Alaska. Yet he is still there, his black ink on the cards for Curry Pasta and Quiche.
A recipe circa 1990, from a secretary in my office at the time, for Black Bread, which calls for bran cereal, molasses, coffee powder and candied orange peel. She wrote at the top: “particularly tasty when unemployed.”
Some handwriting I no longer recognize, just as the identities elude us of some people in old photographs. Their writing is in my box, these mysteries from my past with whom I shared food and ideas. Who gave me Orange Bran Muffins? Creamed Onions? If only I had written names and dates on all the recipes I’ve received.
Most of the contributors have died; some simply have drifted off to their own lives. But somehow, seeing their writing and remembering their food, they are still with me. I’m reminded of a quote from the writer and artist Brian Andreas: “. . . It may be the real reason we are here: to love each other, to eat each other’s cooking and say it was good.”
I’m thankful that my old-fashioned recipe box captures these connections to family, friends and to my past self. And I wonder what we as a society might be losing if we share recipes only in email. While today’s digital world allows us to preserve documents and photographs indefinitely, there’s no substitute for a loved one’s original handwriting on an old faded recipe card.
Catherine M. Allchin is a Seattle freelance writer. John Lok is a Seattle Times staff photographer.