My new sister-in-law has a collection of beautiful handmade cookbooks. They are arranged in chronological order based on the day and hour when the recipe first appeared on the table. Each recipe is carefully copied out in calligraphy and illustrated with a photo of the family enjoying their new taste sensation. During the holidays, she will pull down one of these massive tomes and say, “well, what did we eat for Thanksgiving dinner in 1997?” She then reads menus and ingredients out loud while the rest of us all ask my brother to make another batch of martinis. He is very good at creating martinis.
I know about food. I can name the best caterers in town. Which explains why, when I searched the cupboards for favorite family recipes so I could make my own heirloom quality recipe book, I found only four wrinkled pages torn from Sunset Magazine for a school project due January 25, 1974, and seven recipes cards given during a well-meaning but ultimately disastrous “kitchen” shower the details of which are best forgotten.
For quick solace I raided the freezer and when I shut the door a batch of restaurant menus paper clipped together fluttered to the floor. Three years ago we had arranged these flyers in alphabetical order with a short list of favorites because, by the time the majority of people in the house realized it was time for a socially sanctioned meal, the only family member not delirious with hunger is the four-year-old. We eat a lot of pizza when she is in charge.
I suspected that not even my brother-in-law with the martinis would be impressed with a comprehensive list of all the restaurants within a seven-mile radius of our house. It had to be a real collection. So I pulled out a loose-leaf binder rejected by the boys because it had too much purple on the cover, and I began filling it with recipes that were both delicious and filled with familial meaning. By the end of five months this is what was inside:
- Back of the Nestle chocolate chip bag
- Side-panel of the Kraft Macaroni and Cheese box
- Top Ramen Bag
- Lid to the chicken flavor Cup of Noodles
- The whole butterscotch morsels bag
- Back of the Quaker Oatmeal box
- Label from a can of Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup
- Take and Bake Pizza Instructions – both for the thin crust and for the Calzone
- Label from the Ortega Chili Can for Chili Rellenos even though they’re hard to make.
- Article warning about Transgender fats. Apparently, the average Cup of Noodles is teaming with transgender fats.
- The backs of three favorite Hamburger Helper boxes
- Collection of favorite cold cereals, include Cinnamon Toast Crunch, Cheerios and for the grown-ups in the house, Cracklin’ Oat Bran.
- Label from a block of cheese featuring the ubiquitous happy cow. If quizzed, family members can remember the name of this cow faster than they can recall their grandmother’s first name. (Clo. The cow, not grandma)
- The back of locally produced Tortilla bag only because we really do mean to make those fajitas one of these days but until then, a quesadilla will work just fine. We already have the cheese.
- Microwave warranty
- Frozen burrito bag
- Box for Pizza Pockets
- Box top from super-sized corn dog collection bought on sale at Costco
- Bag of Tostado Oscuro Café Britt coffee from Costa Rica. Coffee is considered part of the base that makes up our personal family food pyramid.
- Warning label from 1,000-count Sweet-and-Low box recently purchased from Sam’s Club by our mother who realized only later, she only needed about three packages.
- Ingredients from the favorite salsa bottle. Yes we know we can grow all of this in our garden but we accidentally watered too much again and the cilantro bloomed way ahead of the tomatoes which, for the second year, have blight, and the lettuce didn’t really come up at all and we can’t remember if we planted peppers but if we did, they mysteriously expired during the night.
- Label from La Victoria refried bean can.
- Simmering instructions off the back of the Three Brothers spaghetti sauce jar, meat flavor with basil. Sometimes I throw in sausage, stir and pretend it’s homemade. Well, it was made at home . . .
- Sees candy bar wrapper recently purchased to support the Roving Bandits Soccer Team or was it the Broken Teeth Hockey Club?
- Ingredients for Girl Scout Cookies – shortbread and those new ones with coconut, also an excellent source of Transgender fats
- An article on the slow food movement sent by our mother-in-law. We only read the first half of the article because it was too long
- The end flap of the Eggo Waffle box with cooking suggestions because contrary to the ease with which Eggo waffles pop out of the family toaster on TV, (reaching heights in excess of 17 feet), our family members tend to turn up the toaster levels to cook the waffle faster, then the cook in question becomes engrossed in SpongeBob and forgets about the waffle entirely. More often than not we must start over. Which is why a large box is necessary.
- Extra batteries for the smoke detector
- Damp napkin printed with that excellent Martini recipe from Bob’s Big Boy Bar, Grill, Sports Bar, Card Club and Casino (13 new slots!) and Yet Another Bar in the Back
- All the options listed on the box of Bisquick Box of Betty Crocker German Chocolate cake, Dad’s favorite birthday cake. German Chocolate cake is also available at the bakery at Oliver’s and pretty good if we don’t say so ourselves.
- Orange juice can, since we can’t remember if it’s four more cans of water or just three more cans and sometimes there’s a requirement to add just a 1/4 more of a can and we haven’t quite made the mark on the can to denote what a 1/4 can is and no matter how hard we try, it never tastes like Mom’s.
- Notes from the last wine tasting tour
As my children heat up another set of frozen burritos and scoop out a half gallon of ice cream, working carefully to fit the entire amount onto a single spoon, I have brief moments when I squint at the current show on the Food Channel and think that yes, maybe there is more to life than efficiency, ease, and eating off paper plates. I now have my own family recipe book, filled with memories appropriate to our own family (we keep photos of notable meals, just like my sister-in-law. For instance, we have a photo of one chicken dish because it’s very pink and swimming in a white sauce dotted with onions. We dubbed this special meal Mauve Chicken because even after languishing in the over for ten hours, the chicken never did cook to eating consistency. No one knows why. )
The answer for many of us who do not have the time to embrace the slow food movement, is to embrace the fast food movement: meals ready in one minute 24 seconds. Please don’t talk to me about a Insta Pot. Thank you.