Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Recipe Box

I remember an olive green, plastic recipe box. Really just a filing box for index cards, I think, not necessarily designed in any special way for recipes. I remember it sitting on the kitchen counter of the condominium we lived in during our last year or so in the Windy City. I remember the window at the end of that galley-style kitchen; I think I remember a loose plaid wallpaper pattern left over from the family before us (excuse: it was the 1970s). I remember sitting on the counter, swinging my dangling legs, talking to Mom while she cooked or baked. I also remember that it was here I saw my first ever big-city cockroach, perched on top of the paper towel roll that was mounted under the sink, attached to the inside of a cabinet door. The roach was big, brown and glistening, and it sent Mom running to the store for boric acid. End of roach. End of roach memories, because really, it's not something you want to linger on—certainly not in a post about recipes. Like all memories, my own surrounding the recipe box may be way off, but this is what my mind yields: the drab color of the box, misleading because inside, as far as I was concerned, the recipes were like multicolored jewels. Or maybe—more accurate but still on the hidden-treasure theme—I should conjure the image of a yellowed map marked with an X for extra tasty; a map of deliciousness, scrawled in a code of sorts: big T and little t, abbreviated c. and fractions that, at my age then, meant absolutely nothing to me. Mom had an assortment of neatly printed (or typed) cards and newspaper clippings stashed inside. I could guess at a lot of the recipes contained in the box, but really only one stands out, and I think this is because it's been the subject of conversation on several occasions; unfortunately, it's gone down in family history as the lost recipe. Lost because, sadly, the whole recipe box went missing somewhere between Chicago and Los Angeles, seemingly fallen off the Bekins moving truck that hauled our lives out West in the summer of 1979. The recipe in question was for a chocolate chip cookie that had rice crisp cereal in it. I have since tried to convince my mom (unsuccessfully) that we can duplicate it with an average Toll House cookie recipe and just dump in a half cup or so of the rice cereal. She is certain there was more to it than that, and I have yet to do a test run in the kitchen to prover her wrong. Who knows what else was lost in that box. I know my mom mourned it, though. I think there was a braised veal dish or something similar, also irreplaceable. Other recipes she could find again: they were perhaps for my grandmother's pastitsio or my other grandmother's cornbread. At the time, they were both still living, so all that was required was a call or visit, pen and paper in hand. Mercifully, the loss of the recipe box didn't stall my mother's culinary efforts—if anything, it increased them. We have since amassed a new collection of family favorites: the fresh-tomato pasta sauce, chicken jambalaya, pumpkin muffins, decadent chocolate "brownie" cake . . . the list goes on . . . though no box (just cookbooks and a system I no longer understand of filing handwritten recipes between the books' covers, a specific book I guess). The important part, of course, is just that there was a box in the first place—the memory of kitchen comfort, the knowledge that when I was young, instead of take-out speed-dial on a mobile phone, my mother was the kind of woman who had a small, boring-looking recipe box that she kept with meticulous care and dipped into on a daily basis to feed us all. It's a good way to grow up, a good thing to remember. And my next project? Those cookies.

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