Why I Cling to Paper Recipes

My folder of ancient recipes, most of them never made.

My folder of ancient recipes, most of them never made.

Nearly any recipe you can cook can be found online. Epicurious, Allrecipes, the Food Network, the New York Times food section…all offer instant gratification and full-color photos and videos for the impatient or impetuous cook. Even obscure recipes from my childhood – such as a recipe for German apple cake made with bread crumbs — can be retrieved with a few well-chosen keywords.

Yet I cling to a long row of recipe books, at least half of them never used. I also have a 30-year-old accordion file filled with yellowing, aging scraps of paper, scribbled with cooking instructions for dishes I’ve never made from people I haven’t seen or heard from in decades. The alphabetized file (do they even sell them any more?) is covered with remnants of wallpaper from the kitchen of my first townhouse, back when ridiculous geese, gray/blue florals and “welcome friends” signs were all the rage.

With few exceptions the books are pristine. Some were gifts from friends. I made appreciative murmurs when they were bestowed and looked through them with good intentions, promising, “I’ll definitely use this a LOT!” Then I put them on the kitchen bookshelf and forgot about them. Their unblemished and uncracked spines stare back at me from the shelf, like the “40-year-old virgin’s” collection of never-played-with action figures. They make me worry that I’m too inhibited a chef. They make me feel lazy because for the past decade I’ve shunned any recipe that ends with the words “serve immediately.” But I keep the books because my friends gave them to me and I feel ungrateful parting with them.

My library of cookbooks, some of them still virgins.

My library of cookbooks, some of them still virgins.

Other cookbooks on the shelf have been used time and time again, but only for a handful of recipes. With apologies to Julie of “Julie and Julia,” I find the challenge of trying every recipe pointless and daunting. Unlike a more organized friend who cooks, I’ve resisted the urge to keep the most-frequently-used recipes in one binder, with each recipe entombed behind protective plastic. That would mean the rest of the cherry-picked books would indeed be useless, strengthening the case for getting rid of them.

“Joy of Cooking” (the 19th printing, from 1980) is a good reference for technique, but it’s like visiting a time capsule from the first half of the 20th century, with recipes like chicken a la king. “Cooking Essentials for the New Professional Chef,” a book son Ryan gave me from a class he took in college, will tell you all you need to know about mis en place, boning a rabbit, or making eight professional-quality apple pies at a time.   The thick tome by Jacques Pepin, heavy enough to flatten a chicken, was from a class at Sur La Table entitled “Cooking with Jacques Pepin,” which I took with son Jesse. I’ve used exactly two recipes from that book, but looking at it reminds me of how we laughed at the fine print that accompanied the promo for that class: “Jacques Pepin will not be in attendance.”

If cookbooks are the kitchen’s reference library, my old recipe folder is the rare documents room in the museum of my personal history. Inside it can be found recipes in my dad’s handwriting or from his old Okidata dot-matrix printer, on perforated paper that once included holes along the edges. While he’s been gone for 17 years, seeing those old recipes in his handwriting brings him back to me. I can almost smell the steam from the pizzelli iron, as I talked with Dad and timed each pizzelli with a Hail Mary.

Other filed recipes recall old coworkers from 30 years ago, including the recipes on large post cards that were part of a bridal shower they gave me for my first marriage. One, for chicken and rice casserole, has been used many dozens of times, and when I see the handwriting of the woman who gave it to me – a fragile, lonely person who had affairs with two married men at the office – I hope that she has become stronger over time. Filed under “C,” the ripped-out pages from a 1989 Good Housekeeping Christmas issue hold my most treasured cookie recipe. That recipe only takes up one page but for some reason I’ve saved the entire article, including the recipe for “Barbara Bush’s Ginger Cookies.” I was a young mother of 35 back then, busier but still driven to make lots of Christmas cookies – unlike today.

So for me recipes on paper are not only instructions, but tangible relics of the past – the friends I’ve lost touch with, my aunts’ cheerful kitchens, the occasions when the recipes were first tasted, the girl or woman I was back then. The most beloved ones are also the most stained and careworn, like a soft old sweatshirt with frayed sleeves. Epicurious will always have its place, but an iPad screen is no substitute for a book that can be perused on a rainy day, opened up on a countertop or stained by an errant splash of gravy; or a handwritten recipe that still bears the DNA of a loved one who is long gone.

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