In the proverbial house fire from which you can rescue just one item, many of us know what we’d choose: photo albums, love letters. For me, it’s always been my ring binder of recipes. But why? Like a beloved relative one never gets around to visiting, it is unkempt, neglected, a source of shame. Theoretically, its glue-stained pages contain all the recipes I could ever need: old favorites (sausage pasta from a supermarket card), holiday souvenirs (Irish seaweed pudding), a superlative fish pie. Yet I never cook from it. My real cookbooks are more tempting, with their beautifully styled enticements to try bottarga spaghetti or greengage sorbet. The rotation of easy meals that I make rarely changes, and there’s never enough time to launch into Georgian dumplings. Since I filed away instructions for making Colombian oat milk, the Internet was invented; my bookshelves contain innumerable foolproof bread recipes, so why would I trust this one?
But, as with so many other scruffy fragments of the past, I can’t quite abandon my recipe collection. Occasionally, on a wintry holiday afternoon, I’ll pull out the old blue binder and add hole reinforcers to pages, attempt an index, sort the ridiculous (Campari chocolate truffles) from the merely unlikely (Florentine rice cake). The last time I braved it, in the midst of finishing my fourth novel, I was so tired that I labelled the book, carefully, “RECIPIES.”
The small children for whom I gathered sustaining breakfast-cake preparations and secretly-whole-meal-cookie recipes are now long grown. The daunting dinner parties for which I might have attempted Brazilian salmon moqueca or Iraqi lamb pilaf, with interesting side dishes and too much washing up, have become the unmourned casualties of divorce. Although there are recipes that I’m glad I saved (oddly, often American ones—Marian Burros’s famous plum torte, Suzanne Dunaway’s no-knead focaccia), they are wildly outnumbered by the preposterously aspirational and the tragically outdated: instructions for a future I never had. When, pray, did I think I’d be making Cowboy Campfire Beef, given that I loathe camping? For which incarnation of future me did I, at the age of nineteen, laboriously copy down the recipe for Lemon Tart for Twelve (“DON’T OVERHANDLE”)?
The book is filled with recipes for dishes that I tasted once and decided I had to re-create: a raucous party’s mango daiquiri, the French chicken stew of dreams. There are umpteen apple cakes (Dutch, French, Mecklenburg, Dorset, whole-meal, mincemeat, polenta, caraway) and pages of marmalades. I never eat marmalade. Paging through, I grow more and more irritated; I’ve barely attempted a tenth of these, and even the usable dishes (red-braised beef shin, Estonian smoked haddock) have missed their moment; neither my resident teen-ager nor my vegan girlfriend would go near them.
Slowly, I’ve accepted that my recipe book is not a work in progress but an artifact, which contains hints and scraps of my former self. Again and again, I’m struck by how desperately a younger me wanted reassurance: the “best” coleslaw, the “perfect” falafel. Was it my weakness for the idea of an anthology, or a pathetic elder-child insecurity about my own opinion? Was it a fear of losing the past, or does every family have an archivist who insures the preservation of three different Hungarian great-aunts’ nut-cake recipes, an apricot-jam preparation scribbled in a French hotelier’s schoolbook-curly handwriting, and an old friend’s mother’s flapjack guidance, written out twice?
There are traces of others in the book, too. I will probably never bake my son another birthday cake, but at least I have his recipe for “ricey sauce”; and my daughter’s unusual prawn pie; and the record I kept, thank God, of a snowy day of cooking in 2012:
On sepia scraps of school paper, I also have a few verbatim recipes from my much-missed hero, my grandmother. I never asked her the important questions, like “How did you survive so much loss and grief?” It was impossible; she’d cry the moment anything touched on the past. But I did manage to extract her recipes for a few vital dishes. Spinach: “defrost spinach, add a roux made of olive oil, such-much flour, and lots of crushed garlic. Boil.” Or her “korozet,” technically körözött, a Hungarian spread: “medium pot curd cheese, spring onions, large carton yoghurt, 2 tsp caraway and paprika, stir beautifully with spoon.” And there, through her unreplicable food, she comes back to life.
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