In honor of Mother’s Day, I thought it would be fun to take a little trip back in time. So I got out my mother’s old recipe box, eager to revisit the tastes of my childhood.
Jammed in with magazine clippings were index cards on which Elaine Rogers had written her favorite recipes. And what was the fattest section in that little box, tabbed with dividers?
“MEAT.” Of course.
My mother was a terrific cook and served our family some variation of beef most every night for dinner. I couldn’t wait for the juices of those memories to start flowing.
The first card in the section was “Baked Veal.” I never saw veal served in our household, baked or otherwise. Where did that recipe come from?
Next was “Beef Roulade,” a pounded flank steak stuffed with sausage, onions, celery, and turnips, then finished with a sauce containing something called “meat extract paste.” Turnips? No. I was doubly certain never to have witnessed such a thing on our dinner table.
More cards, more recipes.
“Beef Hash,” wasn’t simply chopped meat with potatoes and onions. This version called for generous amounts of butter and heavy cream. “Beef Flamand” had sour cream, chili powder, and Cognac. For “Carbonnade of Beef” my mother had saved time by clipping and taping a tiny magazine recipe to a card where it fit perfectly.
I remembered none of these. None at all. Not the “Veal and Asparagus.” Not the “Sauerbraten” that I’m pretty sure I’ve never eaten to this day, not at home or anywhere else. Not the “Beef Goulash” or any of the other recipes in that section – or even in the entire rest of the box, as far as I could tell.
So what did we eat, if not those dishes? And why did my mother keep recipes for meals she never cooked?
One thought came to me: Maybe the box contained the “grown-up” recipes my mother served guests who came to dine. After all, she and my father entertained friends and business associates in our modern Detroit home. Back then, I was still young enough to view those rituals – from my hiding place amid the ladies’ perfumed minks in the coat closet – as elegant and mysterious. Did those people get to eat the soufflés, the crêpes, and other fancy foods that were in fashion?
Memory is a slippery thing. We can forget events that actually took place, and “remember” ones that didn’t. But the memories that are tied to our senses, rather than our thoughts, remain more vivid. They can be revived by the smell of butter browning in a pan or the taste of that first, early spring berry.
When I began learning to cook as a young teen, I too started writing down recipes. Without any index cards handy, I claimed space on the back of my mother’s cards. That’s why her recipe for “Potage Mongole” has mine for “Celery Chowder” on the back. That’s why her entry for a “Frozen Salad” made with cream cheese, mayonnaise, marshmallows, whipped cream, and fruit has mine for “Blueberry Rice Salad” scribbled just beneath it. At least I kept the categories consistent.
My mother’s been gone an awfully long time, and with one exception I’ll never find out which of those dishes she attempted, liked, or disliked. (Someone thought enough of her “Beef Stroganoff” that they actually typed up a recipe card. I put it in my book Hungry for Home: Stories of Food from Across the Carolinas.)
Perhaps the recipe box was just a wish-list of things to try someday, a collection of ideas to spark inspiration, or simply a hobby that married women were supposed to have.
When I picture my mother cooking, whether in a house-dress or a cocktail dress, here’s what stands out: I don’t recall ever seeing her consult a cookbook, a magazine, or even an index card. Not once.
Although we lost our mother much too soon, my siblings and I were fortunate. We grew up well-fed on brisket and meat loaf and baked chicken, each unremarkable, made by our mother without a secret ingredient or method, made over and over throughout the years, made so familiar as to become ineffable.
Those of us who were nourished and raised by such women are truly blessed. We have memories – and if we’re lucky, we have a few recipes, too – to remember them by.
Elaine’s Frozen Salad
Two 3-oz. packages of cream cheese at room temperature
1 cup mayonnaise
1 cup whipping cream
One 14- to 15-oz. can of cherries, drained
One 20-oz. can crushed pineapple, drained
24 mini-marshmallows (optional)
Put the cream cheese and mayonnaise in a mixing bowl and blend at low speed until combined. Set aside.
In a separate bowl, whip the cream until it holds soft peaks. Fold the whipped cream into the cream cheese mixture. Add the fruits and stir until combined. Spread into a freezer-safe dish and scatter the marshmallows (if using) on top. Freeze until firm. Makes 8 servings.