burning her recipes

A small black scribbler, the cover textured like cheap crocodile skin. Her handwriting on every page, and some splatters of oil, grease, pancake batter. Yet I don’t remember her using the scribbler to cook from. Her repertoire was not large. It wasn’t fancy. Macaroni and cheese one night a week; after 1966 spaghetti rich with meat and tinned mushroom;, fried chicken (which I loved); a mixture of ground beef, canned peas, and onions over riced potatoes; a roast on Sunday, put into the oven before church so that when we arrived home, the house smelled of beef or lamb stuck with slivers of garlic. Her gravy was delicious. Goulash, which was much like the spaghetti sauce, but with paprika instead of oregano. Once she and my father bought a Kraft pizza kit and she followed the instructions on the box. My younger brother and I cried at the smell of the powdered cheese. Like throw-up, we sobbed, and she told us we didn’t have to eat any of it but there would be nothing else.

In an envelope, a mess of newspaper clippings, all recipes. A dark fruitcake I don’t believe she ever made. (Ours came from Woodwards, with marzipan and candied cherries.) A casserole of chicken and dried apricots which I think she did try once. My father professed to hate chicken in any form so it didn’t appear often. Just the fried version when he was away at sea. A handful of cards from a magazine with tips for the busy housewife: bright images of porkchops glazed with jam or syrup; meatballs in tomatoes and wine, heaped over noodles; a cake made from a boxed mix, but made richer with pudding and fresh eggs, and topped with Dream Whip and crushed pineapple.

All up in smoke, along with photographs of her foster sister in a nursing uniform, circa 1935, some Sunday School classes, sailors (my father among them) in costume under palm trees in some exotic port, and people I couldn’t recognize so didn’t want to keep on the off-chance (a phrase she used often, a justification for keeping so much, in such disorder). You could recycle some of this, my husband said, but I wanted it gone, out of the house, and the day was warm, some cloud, no rain: a good day to burn the past.
Now that the fire has died down, I can smell the smoke in my hair, the old recipes and their attractions reduced to fly ash, the photographs dissolved one smiling group at a time.


4 thoughts on “burning her recipes”

    1. Oh, A — my parents moved from a house to an apartment a few years before they died. They didn’t get rid of a single piece of paper. They rented two storage lockers to hold what wouldn’t fit in their new digs. I brought home boxes of stuff and it’s taken me several years to sort through it, mostly because it’s a sad process. There’s no order (I’m a bit that way…) and everything is all jumbled together. I’m coming to the end of it and have gotten kind of ruthless about what I’m keeping. And that’s resulted in considerable emotional extremes…I’ve kept what I can but it’s not easy to discard this accumulation. Yet I didn’t expect burning recipes to seem so, well, final.

  1. So brave! I have inherited far more paper than you and I just can’t get rid of it. Would you please come to my house and start a bonfire?

    1. I’ve found the bonfire of the vanities — the process by which I burn my old manuscripts and ephemera (the stuff I was saving just in case…) — is really cathartic! But this last little fire of my mother’s recipes and stray photographs, not so much.

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