Cooking

Heart-Shaped Box

For Mother's Day, four Tasting Table editors went rifling through their mothers' recipe boxes to see what they could find
Photo: Rachel Vanni/Tasting Table
Recipe Boxes

There was a time when nearly every mother had a cardboard, plastic or metal recipe box tucked away in a kitchen cupboard. These days, those recipe boxes are more likely to live online as an email folder or on a recipe website. No offense to the web, but nothing beats the old-school version, with handwritten notes, stains from that time the soup boiled over and clipped cutouts from 1950s magazines. So for Mother's Day, we dug into our moms' and grandmoms' recipe boxes. Here's what we found.

Alison Spiegel, Senior Writer
My mom still keeps a recipe box and also has her mother-in-law's box. They're some of my favorite things to rifle through when I go home. From my grandmother's box, my favorite recipe is her fudge squares—legendary in my family and a staple every time we'd visit her. We didn't eat a lot of her cooking growing up, but the dense, rich chocolate squares will always stand out as a childhood favorite.

My mom's cooking, on the other hand, we ate almost every day of the week. Not only did we have family dinner on most evenings, but breakfast was a daily occurance, too, when I was a little kid. What I feel most grateful for when I think about my mom's cooking—and when I leaf through her recipe box—is all the baking she did.

My mom bakes brownies for no good reason, makes multiple cakes for one birthday and decorates Christmas cookies, as is the annual family tradition—even in our Jewish household. I love the pumpkin muffins she still makes at Thanksgiving and the zucchini bread she makes all summer long (see the recipe). Her angel food cake is heavenly (sorry, but it's true), and her stone fruit crostatas disappear before lunchtime in the summer. I inherited her sweet tooth, and I'm not afraid to use it.

Devra Ferst, Senior Editor
When my grandmother passed away, there were only two things I truly wanted from her home as momentos: my great-grandmother's china and my grandmother's recipe box. The china, with its elegant green and gold trim, has remained carefully packed up, tucked away so it doesn't break. But the recipe box—which is as big as a shoe box and weighs more than a cast-iron pan—lives on my counter, a daily reminder to cook and welcome friends to the table—even if it's just for a meal as simple as pasta and salad.

My grandmother and I had a late blooming friendship. We would talk on the phone regularly, often as I was headed to or from the grocery store, with her chiming in on what I might cook. Periodically, I would come home to find a letter with a recipe card enclosed, almost always covered in a protective plastic sleeve—as if she knew that I am a cook who makes messes. Those cards shared recipes for her legendary gravlax, her homemade sweet and hot mustard, her soups and other dishes she was known and loved for in our family. My favorites are the ones where she included tips on how to clean a pan or set up for a dinner party or keep produce fresher longer.

Cards with these gems ("See a scratch on a piece of wood furniture? Use a mixture of instant coffee and water to cover it over.") are sprinkled throughout the recipe box, along with suggestions for cocktail party menus that include steak tartare, smoked bluefish and pickled mushrooms. Sometimes I sift through the box and discover new ones, tucked between recipes I know and love. It feels like a treasure trove—a lifetime's worth of my grandmother's cooking knowledge crammed into a metal shoe box.

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Abby Reisner, Editorial Assistant
The Land O'Lakes tin was my mom's reward for sending in a wad of saved-up box tops plus a single dollar for shipping. In 40-plus years of existence, it's never held actual butter, just many handwritten instructions for how to use it, like two-step burgers ("Make burgers; fry in butter."). The recipe calls for just meat, ketchup, bread crumb and egg, and was lovingly dubbed "Tasty Burgers or Yummy Burgers or Delicious Burgers," with "or Good Meat" penned off to the side as an afterthought. Clearly, my mother's recipes all burst with hints of her style, both cooking- and personality-wise. Artichoke lasagne calls for fresh artichokes only if they're on sale; otherwise, canned (underlined twice).

There are the meatballs and ravioli that my mom grew up with, plus the latkes that married into the family. There are clippings of the best side-of-box recipes ("They change the packages, Abby. They change the packages!") and stews that have long been benched after her daughters went meat free. And in between tournedos aux champignons and osso buco are "recipes" from my siblings and me, a child's unintelligible ramblings on animal crackers ("Bake hot hot hot. Let them cool down. And then eat yum yum."). Her initial hesitation on parting with the box for a week for this story surprised me. But it's a sign of how much she cares, and I'm perfectly OK with that.

Rebecca Firkser, Editorial Intern
The aluminum recipe box, emblazoned with pink and white daisies over what can only be described as a groovy ombre background is a clear result of the flower power age. I love that the "79¢" price tag is still stuck to its right side. This collection of recipes was assembled by my paternal grandmother, Claire, and later added to by her daughter, my Aunt Sharyn. A typical Jewish mother, Claire cooked often: My dad recalls eating her rib eye steak with mustard, roasted chicken, mac and cheese ("cheesy and very crunchy on top—from scratch!"), and meat loaf. Sharyn is an adept cook herself, though her infamous recipes for squash soup and artichoke dip are strangely missing from the box.

The tin contains a combination of newspaper clippings, printed instructions for dishes that came with the purchase of kitchen tools and handwritten cards listing dishes contributed by various members of my grandmother's family. Written in slanted, font-like cursive, these index cards include a classic braised brisket, a vegetable loaf (calling for matzo meal and a sauce made from mushroom soup that is "to be served over cutlets") and a dish simply entitled "Rice," involving "2 C Uncle Ben's long grain" and "2 pkg. Lipton onion soup mix."

It's clear from this box's very existence that my grandma enjoyed being in the kitchen, tasked with preparing a meal for her family. It's also immensely obvious that her back-pocket recipes were influenced by 1950s American cooking standards. The cans of creamed soup, loaf-pan mains and casseroles that comprise nearly every card call to attention the type of cooking that was encouraged of women at this time, particularly in suburbia. I wonder what she would have cooked had this not been the tone of the time. I am planning to make her simple pound cake this year for Mother's Day, because sometimes butter, sugar and flour really are all one needs.

Have a recipe box from your mom? Share a photo with us on Instagram @tastingtable with the hashtag #ttrecipebox.

  • A recipe hastily written down on a piece of paper from my mom's high school. —Devra Ferst

  • One of the box's two recipes for angel food cake, because everyone knows two cakes are better than one. —Rebecca Firkser

  • A recipe for turning bread into cake? Sign us up.

  • We're in love with this vintage Heart-of-Chocolate Cake recipe. 

  • You know a recipe is loved by the amount of wear and tear on the card.

  • In 40-plus years of existence, my mom's recipe box has never held actual butter, just many handwritten instructions for how to use it. —Abby Reisner

  • This recipe has interesting tips like recommeding you "Just fold, like folding baby's crib blanket. You know?"

  • Peter Pan Peanut Butter and Chow Mein Noodles—what else is there in life?

  • This old-school recipe is right on trend with today's veggie-centric movement. 

  • Before the James Beard Awards, there were James Beard recipes from the man himself. 

  • My grandmother's cocktail party ideas from another era. —Devra Ferst

  • My mom doesn't joke around with her dairy products. —Abby Reisner

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