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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In Praise of ‘Casserole Catholics’

During vice presidential debates Joe Biden and Paul Ryan were asked what it meant to be a Catholic in public office. Biden talked about social justice; Ryan about religious freedom. I am amazed that this is still a hot topic 50 years after JFK, our only Catholic president, elected despite people’s concerns over his Catholicism.

I am a lapsed Catholic who hasn’t been inside a church in years. Like many others who’ve left the fold, I feel angry…at the church’s attitude towards gays, women and birth control; at the pedophile priests; at the crackdown on nuns who the Vatican thinks are too concerned with social justice and not toeing the line on Catholic dogma. Yet despite not being a practicing Catholic I still feel as if the church is a part of me. And I’m frankly angry that the most strident factions of the Catholic church have come to define its image.

As I write this I am looking out the window at our neighbor Ed, who is aerating our lawn. Normally my husband Bob would be doing this – Bob and Ed for the past several years have split the cost of renting an aerator for this annual fall ritual. But last week Bob fell down our deck stairs at night while trying to take our dog out for his pre-bedtime ritual, and now he is hobbled by a boot and crutches. Ed graciously offered to push this 200-pound aerator around our yard when Bob couldn’t.

Ed is what I describe as a “casserole Catholic,” those who wear their Catholicism like a humble brown robe rather than like a cardinal’s red cloak. He doesn’t preach or try to foist his ideals on everyone else. He and his wife Margie attend Mass every Saturday evening; Ed volunteers with the St. Vincent DePaul Society, which quietly helps people in need. Casserole Catholics quietly reach out to injured neighbors with casseroles, rides home from school for their children, comforting phone calls and offers of support.

This is the essence of the Catholic faith…not the fight over whether Catholic employers have the right to deny birth control, or whether a fertilized egg is a human being, or whether gay couples should have the right to marry. It’s in the Catholic nuns who work among the poor (as Nicholas Kristof, the brilliant New York Times columnist, pointed out, a few of them defy their church by handing out condoms in AIDs-ravaged African countries.) It’s in the story of St. Theresa, the saint who made it a habit to do good deeds in secret, without expecting a gold star or a feature story in the press.

Indeed, the best parts of all Judeo-Christian religions can be summed up not in Leviticus, or Revelations, or the story of Abraham, but in the Beatitudes:

• Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Verse 3)
• Blessed are the meek: for they shall possess the land. (Verse 4)
• Blessed are they who mourn: for they shall be comforted. (Verse 5)
• Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after justice: for they shall have their fill. (Verse 6)
• Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy. (Verse 7)
• Blessed are the clean of heart: for they shall see God. (Verse 8)
• Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God. (Verse 9)
• Blessed are they that suffer persecution for justice’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Verse 10)

Some of My Best Friends Are Republicans

Two years ago I was at a social gathering with a few dozen women, some of them good friends and the rest friendly acquaintances. As the evening wore on and the wine went down the conversation drifted into dangerous waters: politics.

It started with a conversation about a local family that had fallen on hard times, with both wage earners out of work. While we were somberly expressing concern for them and others like them, one acquaintance, normally a bastion of politeness, spat out a comment:

“It’s all because of that o-BAM-a!!!!” The “bam” syllable launched a spray of pino grigio in my face. I wiped away the wine and the incident for the time being.

But it has come back to me over the past month, during a particularly nasty Presidential campaign filled with vitriol on both sides. People are very divided over the future of this country, something that goes beyond the candidates. Here in Massachusetts the forces are rallying for Romney vs. Obama; for Scott Brown vs. Elizabeth Warren. As campaign signs begin to sprout like spring dandelions on front lawns, the challenge until November will be to keep conversation civil, unlike the campaign.

I lean Democratic, and my Republican friends and I care enough for each other to not let politics interfere with personal relationships. At social gatherings we try not to talk politics, especially if we are unsure of the other person’s beliefs.

But every so often we can’t keep a lid on it.

Last month was one of those times. I was chatting on the phone with an old friend, who went from near-poverty to being a successful businesswoman, and she was lamenting that her 26-year-old son was aging out of the family health insurance plan.

“Fucking Obamacare,” she said. When I reminded her that without the health care plan her son would have lost coverage three years ago, she went on a rant and said Obama was ruining the country. I decided not to argue.

Earlier this year I was driving with three other friends and we were lamenting the alarming number of people who didn’t have health care. “They should get off their butts and go get a job,” said my Republican friend. “Well, many of them LOST jobs!,” my Democrat friend chimed in, clearly ready to debate the issue. Since we were in a car I steered the conversation into safer waters before things got uncomfortable.

My Facebook page includes ads for Romney’s and Paul Ryan’s Facebook pages as “pages you might like,” based on my two dozen FB buddies who’ve already “liked” them. One FB friend — a local businessman whom we like very much — “likes” nearly every ugly caricature of the President that you can imagine, including one that denounces him as a “big fat liar.”

How can friends and neighbors who I adore and share a lot in common with feel so differently from me? Why have some of my childhood confidantes “gone the other way,” despite having shared many of the same life experiences and attitudes in the past? What makes some people Republican and the others Democrat?

I lean Democratic, but not all the way. I believe in the safety net but don’t think it should be a hammock that makes people lazy. I hate people who game the system, whether they are Medicare cheats or billionaires who pay little or no taxes. I never want my kids to lack access to affordable health care but know that some tough decisions have to be made about the cost of treatment.

I’m sure many of my Republican friends share similar moderate views. And to be fair, people with more liberal tendencies are also capable of loose talk, especially after a few drinks. My Facebook feed includes plenty of “likes” for disparaging slogans about Romney and Paul. At a recent dinner out a few of us Dems heartily trashed the other side of the aisle, to the chagrin of a dear friend and very classy guy who happened to be the only Republican present. He smiled patiently and didn’t try to argue with a bunch of tipsy Democrats. Sometimes I’ll go on a rant about right-wing wackos and gradually figure out that the person I’m ranting to is a non-wacko Republican, and just politely waiting for me to finish.

While I sometimes wonder what makes them tick, my Republican friends are compassionate, smart, hard working, always there for me, passionate about giving back to the community. Our friendship will survive this awful campaign, no matter who wins. But I’ll be glad when the elephant in the room – and the donkey — are gone. I’m watching what I drink until then.

Why Can’t We Be Friends?

A few years ago my old neighborhood — which included dozens of kids — had a reunion. All middle aged, we picked up where we had left off. Do new friendships get harder to form as we age?

One of my favorite Harry Chapin songs, called “Taxi,” includes this memorable line:  “And she said, ‘We must get together.’ But I knew it never’d be arranged.”

The scenario was a faded taxi driver discovering that his late-night fare was a long-lost love, who had gone on to become a famous actress while he drove a cab and got perpetually stoned.  But it might as well be the empty pleasantries that many of us exchange with people who pass in and out of our lives after age 30.

That was the theme of an intriguing column, “Friends of a Certain Age,” that appeared in the New York Times recently about the difficulties of making lasting friendships as we grow older.   Alex Williams, the author, wrote about his own travails finding new male friends in New York.  He cites studies and experts who confirm his theory that it’s harder to find deep friendship after age 30.

“As people approach midlife, the days of youthful exploration, when life felt like one big blind date, are fading,” he writes. “Schedules compress, priorities change and people often become pickier in what they want in their friends.

“No matter how many friends you make, a sense of fatalism can creep in: the period for making B.F.F.’s, the way you did in your teens or early 20s, is pretty much over. It’s time to resign yourself to situational friends: K.O.F.’s (kind of friends) — for now.”

That column hit home with me.  While I’ve been blessed with great friendships, some of them dating back more than 50 years, I’ve noticed we do have a more difficult time forming deep new friendships as we get older.  Why is it that our most profound bonds are formed over sandlot baseball games; whispered confidences at preteen pajama parties; all-night study sessions at college?  Then one day our established lives — spouses, children, jobs, household responsibilities – make us less open to it.

My widowed mom moved a few years ago to a small town outside Pennsylvania that on the surface seems to be everything a retiree would want:  safe, walkable, plenty of shops, a few minutes from my brother, who watches over her.  Yet she finds it hard to make friends.

“Everybody is already part of a clique,” she laments.  So she ditched the senior center where nobody wanted to sit with her and instead volunteered at a local school, where the young people appreciated her.  And she commutes by train to her old hometown to see the relatives left behind; and drives on treacherous roads to meet with the good friends from her long career as a high school secretary.

Many adult friendships seem to be more transient, or more “situational,” as Williams pointed out.  We become fast friends with fellow volunteers on the PTA or with people who share the early-morning shift at the gym or the 7:05 train home after work.  We bond at the playground with the fellow moms whose children are friends with our children.

Then, when we volunteer for a new committee or join a new gym, or a playground mom goes back to work, or when our children stop being friends, those bonds loosen.  We’ll run into those onetime BFFs in the supermarket after months or years and spend a few moments catching up with their lives and promise to get together, but we know it never will be arranged.

Even our deepest friendships have ebbs and flows, depending on the pulls from family, work and household duties.  I’ve learned to take it in stride when friends need to cancel plans because one of their adult children needs a ride to the airport, or when they can’t meet for dinner because they need to put up their Christmas decorations.  We’ve done that ourselves.

My Mom always has said, “Don’t expect too much from people and you won’t be disappointed.”  I think she is right.

As time goes on I gain the emotional strength I need from my husband and six children, my siblings, my mom and my husband’s great family.  And I have lucky to have some really wonderful friends and neighbors whom I can always count on.

Sometimes a friend will call and lament that it’s been so long since we’ve spoken and I always tell him or her the same thing:  I am a philodendron friend, not an African violet.  You don’t have to feed and water me every day.  Pay me some attention when you get a moment and my friendship will thrive.

Do you have any strong and lasting friendships that you made in midlife or beyond?

The Story of Another Jack and Bobby

Jack, left, with his best friend Bobby and his daughters Jeanne (top left) and Sheila. Jack and Bobby have been friends for more than six decades and have kept each other company as Jack battles pancreatic cancer.

Most of us thankfully can depend on family members to support us day in and day out during the worst of times. How many of us have at least one great friend who will do the same?

Last week I spent time with Jack and Bobby, a pair of 74-year-old buddies whose friendship started in second grade and never waned. Now Jack is dying of pancreatic cancer, and while he has a loving family, the visits from his old buddy cheer him the most. My story about their friendship was published in the Marlborough Enterprise.

Like the Kennedy legends with the same first names, Jack and Bobby were often inseparable. The brotherly bond between the two men – a bond that has stayed strong despite competition from their large families, busy careers and many other commitments – got me thinking about how our childhood and young adult friendships evolve as we grow older. The bonds that we forged so long ago never go away, but they become rusty and forgotten as other relationships and commitments divert us. The occasional email or holiday card reawakens fond old memories – the whispered secrets at a pajama party, the long sob-fests following a heartbreak, the rum-soaked revelry at a shared beach house — but we tend to move on when the Christmas cards are thrown away and our lives intervene.

That didn’t happen for Jack and Bobby. I think one reason is that they both stayed in the same community except for the time they served in the Marines. But there’s something more: both frankly admit that the pain of being in troubled families made them cling to each other emotionally from the beginning.

Both spoke of the need to escape their parents’ drinking problems and fighting at home, when they were just little kids. Bobby said they both had plenty of other friends, but Jack was the only one who understood what he was going through. As the years went on they remained there for each other – chipping in for gas, doing home improvement projects together, serving as honorary uncles to their growing families, helping each other to be better fathers because they wanted their own kids to have a better family life than they did.

And in their twilight years, they drove each other to the hospital for surgeries, checkups, chemotherapy. Over the past few weeks Bobby has been sitting beside Jack’s hospital bed, sharing stories about boot camp and making him laugh.

If we’re lucky we have buddies like this in our lives. I feel blessed to have my own great friends, some of whom go back to toddlerhood. Others are our neighbors, book club friends, college friends, work friends, terrific adults we met when our children became friends. We trade gossip and child-rearing tips, watch the big game together, bring them casseroles when they are sick, pick up their children at school when they’re stuck. We are there for each other.

Still, no matter how great a friend we try to be, we can always be inspired by the depth of Jack and Bobby’s friendship. It was forged in their childhood pain and it has sustained them in good times and bad over more than six decades. It will continue even after Jack draws his last breath.

Jack’s daughter Jeannie says, “We take good care of him but there’s nothing like the emotional support he gets from Bob. We value him as a dad but having Bob here validates him as somebody else.”