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Trying To Know My Mom Through Her Recipe Box

It can definitely be a window into a loved one's world.

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Close up detail of vintage recipe box
Getty Images
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The other day I had an overwhelming urge to look in my birth mom’s recipe box. When I moved her from her home a few hours south of me into an assisted living a few minutes away from me after her Alzheimer’s diagnosis, I kept the recipe box and stashed it in the corner of my pantry. I keep a jar of honey on top of it. My mom would not be cooking in assisted living — not that she really cooked much to begin with. Her new apartment, outfitted with a microwave, sink and fridge among its mini-kitchen amenities, seemed more for appearances really than cooking, because all her meals are served in the facility’s dining room alongside her fellow residents.  

I’d heard that some tenants — more independent or perhaps cooking diehards — actually used their kitchens in assisted living, enjoying a coffee pot and toaster as well as the ability to make a microwave meal, heat up takeout or prepare cereal and sandwiches for themselves (perhaps keeping some semblance of their previous life). My mom, however, didn’t blink twice about having other people cook and serve her three meals a day in the dining room downstairs.  

I’d had my birth mom in my life for more than 25 years when she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s dementia — a tough and unexpected twist to our great run. As the only family she had apart from a couple of siblings across the country, it has fallen to me to make decisions for her care, and it was natural to move her near me to spend whatever time was left. 

Looking through her recipe box, I wondered if I’d one day get to this phase of life, too. Not just dementia, but joyful to let others cook my food, nullifying any work on my part to prepare even my own cup of coffee or toast. But the recipe box turned out to be anticlimactic. Sure, seeing the few recipes in my mom’s handwriting felt familiar, but most of what the canary and cornflower metal box contained were her longtime companion’s handwritten recipes for things like Veal and Peppers and Zuppa de Clams, as he was the one who loved cooking, not her. He has been gone 10 years already, and I don’t think my mom remembers him anymore. 

As I pored through the cards, I wondered what my family would think upon flipping through my recipe box. Unlike my mother’s, mine is unkempt and stuffed to overflowing with cards, scraps, faded magazine and newspaper clips, sticky notes and slips of torn paper in which I’ve written tidbits like the list of ingredients for my Thai stir fry sauce or the steps to an incredible gumbo I once made. My cards are splattered with food stains and spill marks — as anyone who knows my cooking would expect. 

Oh, every now and again I get a creative zeal to organize my box better, rewriting some  mucked-up cards so they look pristine again or putting some of my soups in the stew section or vice versa. It usually doesn’t last long. Redoing recipe cards is tiring and time-consuming, and after a few you find you lose passion for the project — or at least I do. But after looking through my mom’s box, I thought of mine in a different light: My daughter one day flipping through while reminiscing or searching for a specific recipe, like my holiday sugar cookies or my Mad Hatter meatballs — recipes she hadn’t asked for but would like to have, just in case. Or maybe just looking for a little nostalgia like I’d been seeking in my mother’s recipes.

Suddenly I wanted to add addendums to my cards where I secretly know some trick but haven’t listed it on the recipe (like how you want to take the sugar cookies out of the oven almost before they’re done and let them set up another minute or two on the cookie sheet for the perfect texture). Or that her paternal grandmother’s mac and cheese is best when you let the top crisp up a little because there are always people who enjoy the crunchy edges.

I made a mental note that my recipes might not be complete enough. Those are the secrets worth flipping through a recipe box for. I hadn’t needed to look in my mom’s recipe box before now. She was right down the road. Oh, her memory has gone to hell, and she repeats herself a lot. I can’t talk to her about anything important anymore.

Our conversations are superficial, and I always tell her everyone is “fine” … even when they’re not. Seems that looking into the recipe box was a lot like looking for my mom when I visit. She’s there in theory; just not fully present anymore. The same way the recipes were there, still in the box where she left them, some even in her handwriting, but there weren’t any juicy secrets left behind.  

Mom mostly says the right stuff now, enjoys our visits and tries to ask relevant questions. But the particulars are missing — the private jokes, the secret looks, the ability to deeply understand something or to store it for more than a few minutes. 

Perhaps I thought I’d find just a glimpse of the woman I got to know over the past two decades in that recipe box. Maybe recognize a turn of phrase or some dish we once discussed. In the end, though, since cooking wasn’t really her thing my mom wasn’t in the box. Not the way I am in mine.  

Maybe only avid cooks could understand. Your recipe box holds a treasure trove that will remind your loved ones of you — all that foodie marginalia and secret sauce between the lines. It’s almost like reading a cooking diary.  

For now, I need to go add a note to my sugar cookie card. I want them to catch a glimpse of me when they flip through my recipe box one day.