After receiving Granny’s vintage recipe box, Mother and I pored over its contents—disorganized and jumbled recipe cards, photos, mementos, and handwritten notes. Although disorganized, they were a road map of Granny’s life—a life that had survived two world wars, a pandemic, and the Depression. I closed my eyes and imagined Granny when she was a young bride then as a mother of four flipping through the cards trying to prepare a meal to fill her children’s bellies during the Depression.
The cards themselves smelt like long ago used spices; were dog-eared and stained; and written in Granny’s penmanship—the same penmanship I’d seen on the letters, cards, and notes she’d sent me. The cards were spattered with grease stains and marked with thumbprints. The hand in which they were written had visibly changed between the first recipe and the latter ones.
As my fingers graced the same cards hers had many years ago, I remembered watching her while she baked her signature streusel kuchen and hearing her say, “This is my favorite dessert. No need to bother with the recipe. Just watch and learn.”
Yet when Mother and I cooked together, we often referred to Granny’s recipe cards. Frequently, the cards just listed the ingredients without exact quantities. All too often the recipe’s vague language frustrated me. “Mother, what does use enough flour to make stiff dough mean? Exactly how much is a pinch of salt? What is a scant of this? How much is a spoonful?”
“A good cook should know the basics. Besides, recipes aren’t meant to be precise; they’re meant to jog the memory of how to make those dishes.”
“Well, if the recipes aren’t accurate, why use them?” I threw her a bewildered look. “You know the recipes by heart, so why do you keep the cards?”
“Yes, Granny’s recipes are inexact and out-of-date, and I can make most of her recipes with my eyes closed. I just don’t have the heart to throw away the recipes and file box.”
“I can’t explain it to you.” She turned away from me and continued cooking.
Often I watched Mother take out a single recipe card and linger over it. I realized that perhaps the knowledge the cards brought to mind wasn’t limited to the instructions. Maybe Mother just wanted to hear Granny’s voice and remember the past, including family history, values, and traditions.
Sometimes I close my eyes and step back in time, picturing Granny taking her streusel kuchen out of her oven with her old red and yellow oven mitts and serving me a much-too-generous portion. Occasionally, I yearn for the taste of Granny’s streusel kuchen. Although I don’t have her recipe card, I can re-create her recipe from memory. I bake her streusel kuchen, breathing in the sweet aroma of cinnamon and sugar wafting through my kitchen. Sometimes, I swear I can hear her voice whispering, “You remembered how to make my streusel kuchen! See, you didn’t need to bother with the recipe.”