The Human Spirit: I love them for their stains

"Most of the year, I cook from old knowledge and experience... but in this season with its theme of looking backwards, my recipe folder is a good place to jump-start this process."

Jewish food recipes (photo credit: Courtesy)
Jewish food recipes
(photo credit: Courtesy)
As the Jewish holiday season approaches, I take out my recipes.
Most of the year, I cook from old knowledge and experience, turning to the Internet for ideas when using edamame, bok choy or quince. But in this season with its theme of looking backwards, my recipe folder is a good place to jump-start this process.
Using the word “folder” over-dignifies my recipe collection. Long ago, it outgrew its primitive filing system – a pale blue, Hebrew-book style tax-receipt contrivance. Nor are my recipes digitized or scanned, not in a Rolodex or in a cute index-card box that says “my recipes” on the top. Instead, they live in a large bag. Although there is evidence of failed, half-hearted attempts to categorize them, I never got around to it.
But when I dump the papers out on the dining room table and begin going through them, I’m filled with nostalgia and wonder. I love them for their associations, for the tiny notes others have written (“This is really delicious! “I double bag it so it doesn’t spill”), and I love them for their stains, acquired over years of use.
None of the recipes originated from my Eastern European-born grandmothers, both of whom died when I was young. Our family culinary history begins in the United States where my parents and their siblings were born.
Family favorites were likely to be clipped from the side of a cereal or minute rice box. The recipe for Toll House cake is so worn I needed a magnifying glass to figure out how many eggs it called for.
But with the years, and particularly after some of us moved to Israel, our tastes were modified and our recipes expanded.
In a neat handwriting, my mother wrote out some of her favorites on lined note paper. I have her salmon and her rice pudding, her veal roast and blintze soufflé.
Every family has a designated supreme cook. Ours was Aunt Lucile. I have her recipes on a typed thin page someone once produced by carbon copy on rice paper, probably the effort of a cousin. They don’t seem right. I know, for instance, that her mandel bread had coconut and chocolate chips. The recipes I have from her I learned directly, and were simple – the chicken she made when she was cooking for the entire synagogue, and her coleslaw, were easier to make than the printed copy suggests.
But when I read that page of recipes, I think of that happy Sunday on her sole visit to Israel, when she passed up the tour to Masada for the joy of turning the leftovers of a giant bar-mitzva halla into colossal French toast.
My Aunt Rose taught me to use pumpkin spice on butternut squash. The surprise ingredient in my friend June’s brisket is a whole package of fresh dill. I got by with a little help from my friends.
Of course, many recipes are in my handwriting – my neighbor and study partner Aliza’s yeast dough and her onion quiche. Some are on the back side of recycled paper and reflect writing projects long completed or abandoned. I still admire the friends who contributed requested favorites on index cards with their names imprinted.
Not all the associations are pleasurable.
One recipe reminds me of a person with whom I quarreled after my then-elementary- school-aged daughter (now a much sought-after child psychologist) debunked her daughter’s belief in the stork as a bringer of babies. I never made the raisin oatmeal squares after that. Or there were the labor-intensive baked good recipes my husband brought home from a long lecture tour abroad.
He requested them from the hostess, sure I would want to make them. I was home coping with a career and small children and displeased by the gesture, So why keep the recipes? They, too, are a reminder of hard-won life lessons and the negotiated world of marriage. We’re still married, but now my husband brings jewelry.
My friend Sarah Wernick had an early career as a food writer for the Boston Globe. Wrote Sarah, “Jewish cooking reflects the wisdom that the idea behind a holiday is best absorbed if accompanied by something tasty.” Her 1981 recipe for a honey apple torte is yellow, honey- stained and tattered. It’s a winner.
After baking the honey cake, you pour more honey over the top, then glaze with apricot jam and top with a design of angel wings of glazed apples.
Angels. My mother, and my aunts Lucile and Rose, Sarah, June and Aliza, and others are gone. I have a lot of names to remember for the Yizkor prayer. And I also have their recipes. I get teary when I touch the papers, smoothing the creases, reminiscing, missing. I’ve make a pile of those I’ll use for each of the holidays.
That’s as organized as I can get.
Never complain to me that the holidays are too much about food.
The author is a Jerusalem writer who focuses on the stories of modern Israel. She serves as the Israel director of public relations for Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. The views in her columns are her own.