So it’s done. I have gathered all of my recipes into one binder. It’s a whole different system, now. I used to tear what looked good out of magazines and pile pages on top of the binder. Now they are tucked neatly inside clear, plastic dividers, along with index cards from my mom’s old recipe box and various scraps and print-outs of my own. I knew it was going to be a project, but I didn’t anticipate the time-travel component. I didn’t expect such a solitary undertaking to feel so cozily crowded with friends and family.
I felt like an archivist: imagine in this day-and-age, seeing handwriting again, especially the writing of my mother’s friends when she was a young mom: Kitty Keane’s Crescent Cookies, Mary Currey’s Dried-Beef Casserole, Diva Anderson’s mother’s lasagna . My mom’s meatloaf recipe sketched out in her trademark-barely-legible scrawl read as comfortably as it used to go down with a side of macaroni and cheese.
One of my best friends in elementary school lived up the street but moved in the 8th grade. I haven’t seen or even thought of her in years, but I have her mother’s Pecan Tea Cakes recipe, and looking at Stephanie’s handwriting brought her right back to me: her dog, Arco, her dad’s convertible, the dream house we took weeks to plan and draw on big poster board, stored under her bed.
There’s writing I didn’t recognize. Certainly recipes I didn’t recognize (did we ever actually eat Dried-Beef Casserole?), and I will wonder now, each time I flip through the dessert section of the binder, who was that “Lady in Store” that gave my mom the brownie recipe. Didn’t we always just use a mix?
As I organized the binder, I spent time with people in my present too—not just my past. Kerryann was there with her spaghetti sauce, Susanne with her turkey meatballs, Rachel with her pot-pie, Mandy with her Grilled Sesame Salmon (my annotation reads, “delish!”). And my brother Matt was there, too—not cooking, of course. He was there making fun of me for my Pepperoni Pinwheels, world-famous appetizer involving such specialized ingredients as Pillsbury dough, cheddar, oregano, and pepperoni. If you came to the Regan Family Christmas Party between the years of 1980 and 1994, you experienced greatness. Matt may have made fun, but he ate those pinwheels.
I follow recipes to the letter. I actually use measuring cups and spoons. There are those who see recipes only as starting-points or suggestions. These people I tend to dislike, except for the ones who feed me on a consistent basis. There’s Sarah, my sister-in-law, whose White Bean Stew puts the “Christmas” into Christmas Eve each year. Anne and Rob, more family, will host a little get-together and serve something like “borscht,” something that prompts me to say something like, “What is borscht?” Yale’s chicken salad laughs at all other existing chicken salads. And of course there is Mike, married to (spaghetti sauce) Kerryann. We may have them over for pizza but they’ll have us over for Northern Italy Night. I picture Mike yukking it up with the Eastern Market meat guy, throwing together a meal-plan like Jackson Pollock tossed paint. We’ll get to their house and he’ll have prepared nothing—it’s unnerving. Then after niceties and an introductory glass of wine, suddenly a blender appears, and after a few whirs and turns, in it, a cream sauce. Mike will slice garlic. (I thought the rule was you can only mince garlic.) Mike will blanche broccoli. (I thought the rule was you can only steam broccoli.) He’s that X-Games kid who lands no-handed triple rotations on a dirt bike. (I thought the rule was you can only ride your bike…on the sidewalk.) Thankfully, Kerryann is an equally adept wine-pourer, so any insecurities I may have seem to vanish as magically as the cream sauce appears.
Whatever your approach to cooking—by-the-book or improvisational—I wish you a 2013 packed with home-cooked meals and good, good company. Maybe early January isn’t the time to resolve to diet more and eat less. Maybe it’s time to curl up with a good book of recipes, visit the pages, and snack a little on tea cakes, trying not to leave all that is rich and sweet about the holidays behind us.