By Tahnee Freda
I’m searching through my grandmother’s tattered recipe cards, looking for the meals of my childhood. Some are smudged or partially ruined from stray drops of liquid, likely her signature sweet tea. Many are ringed with grease and ripping at the corners. Often, they’re just shards of yellow legal pad paper marked with her not great yet entirely perfect handwriting. I’m struck by one for oatmeal cookies that has the word “good” scribbled in loopy cursive on the margin. The sight of it makes my heart swell and my neck stiffen at once.
What did she mean by good? Did she mean the recipe was a good one? Was she sending secret messages to my grandfather? I’ll never know what she meant when she wrote “good” on her recipe card for oatmeal cookies because my grandmother, now in her late eighties, can’t remember things like that anymore. She has a degenerative disease of the nervous system, a slow and incurable atrophy of the mind.
My grandmother is a sharp, funny and warm Southern woman. She worked for three decades as a secretary for her husband. They had an oil company together. She raised three children. She gardened, traveled, entered her intricate quilts into the county fair and won first place every year. She loved to have a cocktail, watch black-and-white movies and listen to big band music. She knew every detail of her own genealogy as well as her husband’s.
For all her mastery, hobbies and impressive skills, the most vivid memory I have of my grandmother is her slim frame hovering over the giant wooden butcher block planted in the center of her kitchen. She was a marvelous cook.
My grandmother’s cooking was particular and confident. Mounds of fried chicken every Sunday, served with vinegared cucumbers, homemade cornbread muffins and crunchy, fried okra. Lasagna prepared in a disposable aluminum tray made so heavy by cheese and sauce that you needed four hands to carry it out of the oven, bubbling and browned. Ground beef tacos with deep fried corn tortilla shells and freshly smashed guacamole. She made them all on a rickety electric stove where every burner was lopsided. Bits of food were always deliciously charred. It was the food that fed our souls.
I can’t find recipe cards for any of the aforementioned meals. Instead, I find recipes for dishes I can barely recall—a Korean spinach salad, although it’s unclear what makes it Korean as it’s essentially a Cobb salad with bean sprouts and water chestnuts; a lemon Jello cake with an uncharacteristically specific instruction to “mix for four minutes”; a nameless recipe for what appears to be some sort of bread. These are my grandmother’s other/lesser recipes. Not the greatest hits I’m looking for, the ones I want to serve my daughter.
Just when I think my search has failed me, I go back to the oatmeal cookie recipe and realize what I’ve discovered. These recipes may not hold the directions for the dishes I want to pass down, but they offer something else. They possess subtle clues about my grandmother’s life. They speak of how direct she was, how human she was in her errors, how endearingly low-tech she remained, and of course, how she liked to eat. These are the recipes she wanted to try, or was afraid to forget, not the ones that were coded into her DNA (and therefore, coded in mine).
In a world of glossy cookbooks and calculated online recipes, it’s refreshing and almost comical to witness my grandmother’s primitive versions. It makes me laugh to see the straightforwardness, the shortcuts, the absolute disregard for itemization in her handwritten recipes, because she was always humorously lacking in attention to details. She was dedicated to efficiency but prone to laxity. If you asked her to sew a button back on a sweater for you, she’d grab whatever color thread was around, paying no mind that the rest of the sweater was blue—orange thread would do just fine. She didn’t much care about mismatched utensils or putting out stale nuts for her card game guests—as long as we had utensils and nuts, we’d be fine.
It’s this trademark of hers that makes the recipe cards a treasure trove. They’re so indicative of her low maintenance attitude. What other riddles and hints could I recover about her life from the marginalia left behind?
Family recipes, especially handwritten ones, are a means of time traveling, world-building, and a biography all in one. I’m reminded of my fascination with Joan Didion’s handwritten recipes, gems that slipped into the public sphere when her nephew was raising money to produce a documentary about her. Didion’s recipes are utilitarian, much like my grandmother’s, but they still convey a warmth that’s sometimes missing from her prose. The perception of the impenetrable female intellectual is pierced by her recipes.
Joan’s recipe for borscht, scrawled on a piece of Time-Life News stationary. Her créme caramel for twelve in which she numbers the steps one through four. And of course, her noteworthy parsley salad for “35-40” guests which features no less than eight bunches of parsley. The recipes offer cracks in the facade of her public-facing severity and lack of sentimentality. Right there in ink, her preferences and her directions for feeding others offer an act of great warmth. They are marked by the intimacy of the emotional arc of cooking; the crossing out of measurements, the smudges, smears and parentheticals. The details bring to mind a sense of place and a sense of family. The ones that are typed versus the ones that are scribbled; the ones reserved for a party of a dozen rather than four dozen. Recipes have their own language and their own ethos.
The details embedded in my grandmother’s recipe cards are decidedly her, a person who cares very little about details. Even in these small artifacts of kitchens past, you can see her reticence to explain, her relishing in simplicity. In the oatmeal cookie recipe, there is no separation of dry and wet ingredients, no delineation between blending or mixing or whisking. The only instructions provided are “Mix. Bake 370.” The language of my grandmother’s recipes seems to be saying, “Just go do it. Don’t worry about it.” Like Joan’s recipes, my grandmother’s deliver me straight to the texture of her life in the kitchen and outside of it.
In my grandmother’s recipes I was seeking the powerful memories of her meals, but what I found were reminders about the woman she was, and still is underneath the sickness. I was reminded of my grandmother as she used to be—less frail, more verbal, unfussy.
She may not remember much these days, but writing down her recipes has given me a way to rediscover the things I knew all along but had locked away when she got sick. Not all recipes need to be cooked, but they all deserve to be read; there’s so much to discover in the margins.
Tahnee Freda is a writer and dramatic arts teacher living in Los Angeles with her husband and daughter. When she’s not in the classroom or at the keyboard, she can be found in the kitchen trying out recipes, old and new. More of her writing can be found on her website tahneesucks.com.
Like what you are reading at Motherwell? Please consider supporting us here.