Hello, Back There

I wear light clothes on a late-September Thursday; it is hot,—hot and muggy. That night, I crawl into bed with the ceiling fan whirring full blast. As I nod over my book, I hear the air conditioning unit kick on again.

It’s been running hard most of the day.

I wake up sometime during the night and know that rain is pounding the roof. I sleep, deep and sound, until the morning has lightened, and I realize, before even swinging my feet out of the bed, that something has changed.

Finally, overnight, crisp fall weather has arrived.

I dress in a long-sleeved shirt and jeans. I spend Friday morning grading papers and running errands. In the afternoon, I rake the front yard, and my cheeks are rosy and cold by the time I come into the house. I sit at the dining room table, I check my phone for messages, and I think: SOUP.

I know just the soup I want, and I have all the ingredients. I dig out the old yellow notebook and flip back to Kathie’s recipe for chicken and wild rice soup.

I get out all the ingredients, substituting here and there. I don’t buy Velveeta these days, but I have a wonderful Vermont cheddar and some sharp, creamy, American-style cheese that Mark brought home from one Saturday expedition; those will do nicely. And I’ll use my own chicken broth in place of the five cups of water. And I don’t buy canned cream of mushroom soup any longer; instead, I make something called “Cream of Something Soup.” Those directions lodge in the same notebook as Kathie’s soup recipe.

I found “Cream of Something Soup” when we were trying to wrestle Jim’s diet into some kind of control. Before his autism diagnosis, we discovered, with the help of a book called Is This Your Child?, that Jim was sensitive to a slew of foods. He loved casseroles with meat and cheese and canned cream of chicken soup. The book cautioned against using processed foods, and especially discouraged salty processed soups. I went looking for alternatives and found “Cream of Something Soup” on line.

The recipe provided all kinds of alternatives. I could use AP flour, or I could use gluten-free AP flour substitute. I could use milk, or I could use broth. I could add mushrooms or onions, or no veggies at all. And the prep time was three minutes. I used it in one of our family favorites dishes, a chicken and rice bake, and Jim liked it BETTER than when I used cream of chicken soup from the can.

I bookmarked the recipe, and used it again and again. Finally, I printed the recipe and taped it into the notebook.

One of my students had used the yellow and black notebook for her English assignments; at the end of the semester, she did not pick it up. Most of its pages were, sadly, unmarred by academic work and, after waiting a few months to see if she’d come back for it, I ripped out the used pages and started pasting recipes inside. Her name is still emblazoned on the yellow plastic cover in black sharpie that has faded but not disappeared over the 25 years I’ve been taping and using recipes in this book.

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While the soup simmers, I page through the yellow notebook. I have some awesome veggie recipes from a book called Black Dog: Summer on the Vineyard Cookbook. I found that at our former hometown library; the recipe for Roasted Pepper and Eggplant Salad makes one of the best bring-a-dish concoctions I’ve ever found. I copied those cookbook recipes on my printer at home; the pages were brightly colored, and my printer was not up to their vibrancy. But the words were there. I trimmed the pallid copies and pasted them on the loose-leaf pages of the book.

Some recipes I copied long-hand.

Some recipes were written out for me in someone else’s hand: Mark’s dad gave us his meatball recipe. Wendy gave me directions to make her neighbor Joan’s rhubarb cake. Terri sent me wonderful veggie-based recipes on beautiful flowered cards, written in her unmistakable flowing hand.

Kathie emailed me her recipe, and I printed it out.

And I found the other recipes in all kinds of random places—in magazines and newspapers and on-line cooking sites, on the backs of packages and boxes. I cut them out or printed them off, and I pasted them on loose-leaf pages intended for cramped, painstaking notes on some challenging academic subject, and the cast-off notebook grew fat.

*******************************

Now I page through the book. I am thinking of making some kind of dessert—not cookies; we just had cookies. We’ve also had pie and a sort of chocolate pudding-y trifle recently.

Maybe, I think, a cake, and I flip a page over and see this in-my-face title: “Better Than Sex Cake.” Despite the title, I read through. It is a Bundt cake; with a little creativity (I’ll use Greek yoghurt instead of sour cream; I’ll pulverize chocolate chips in the food processor instead of grating German sweet chocolate), I can put this together with things in my pantry. I take the notebook to the kitchen and start to gather ingredients.

And as I gather, I begin to wonder. Who was I, and what was I thinking, when I cut out this recipe? I was probably in my late thirties or early forties; I was parenting a bright, lovable, special needs kid. I was helping my husband make his law school dream come true. I was working.

And I was clipping recipes. They were recipes I probably wouldn’t use at the time that I clipped them. In a way, I think, I was sending letters to my future self.

Someday, I was thinking, someday…we’ll be settled and life will be calmer, and I’ll have a lot more time to browse through my recipes and try new things.

Someday, I was promising, we are going to make this cake.

For a minute, I feel like I’ve connected two wires, felt the snick as they cleaved together, and now hold the completed, humming cable in my two hands. There was a moment of reaching back, of putting my hand on that younger woman’s shoulder, of telling her that there were going to be some stunningly rough spots, but that it was all going to turn out to be okay.

Young self: sending message.

Old self: making the cake.

Message received.

That recycled notebook is looking a little bit like a time capsule to me.

********************************

I am not the only one who does this, who clips and collects and keeps recipes I won’t use right now but might indeed use later. I know this because, when Jim was at odds and between jobs, I asked him if he’d catalog my recipes for me.

He did better than that. He took my old yellow notebook, and my mother’s wooden recipe box—the one with the strawberries painted on it,—and the shoe box full of magazine and newspaper and back-of-package clippings, and he retyped all the recipes, and he printed them off, and he organized them into binders. They are categorized and alphabetized. They comprise four volumes.

My friend Susan contracted with Jim to create a binder for her. One chilly afternoon, they met in her pretty kitchen and bent their heads over a flat, square recipe box. Susan pulled out recipes she loved and recipes she treasured and recipes she wanted to try. Just as I did, she had started, in her young womanhood, clipping and collecting.

Jim made a binder for Susan, too, organizing those missives from a younger self into a tidy, easy-to-access tome, a book that current self could browse through easily. And I knew I hadn’t been the only hopeful young soul spinning dreams of parties and gatherings and comforting meals out into the future.

**********************

I love my binders. But I couldn’t bring myself to ditch the old yellow notebook. Sometimes I like to bring it out and just browse. I mark recipes to try soon and I put x-es through recipes I attempted that bombed, but mostly I think about who I was back when I saved that recipe for me. I run my fingertips over the glossy magazine clipping from twenty years ago, and I feel the cloth-y softness of recipes clipped from long-ago newspapers. I stop and take in the handwriting of some loved person, now, maybe, gone.

For a minute, nowness fades and I feel the continuum, the whole roiling, circling line that is life. I think that, if only I could master the art of tessering as Meg did in A Wrinkle in Time, I cold fold the continuum neatly and step off into those other days, bringing reassurance and giving promises.

But maybe, somehow, that’s already happened.

*****************************

The cake is good. Does it live up to its name?

I’m not even going there.

And I’m going to re-name it, anyway. One of the funny quirks of autism, I’ve found, is a sort of Puritanical streak. Jim would not find it amusing to eat “Better Than Sex” cake.

Maybe, I think, we’ll call it “Better Than Books” or “Richer Than Reading” cake. And of course, then I’ll have to dispute that title, too.

Whatever we call it, we’ll eat that cake, down to the crumbs on the platter.

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And isn’t it funny that, years ago, younger me clipped the very recipe that I’d have wherewithal to mix together at the ripe old age of 64, when all the worries of those days, all the encompassing demands on my time, and all the pulsing questions of the time have been resolved?

I might, of course, have been able to find a very similar recipe on line, but then that current never would have been coursing. I wouldn’t have held that humming cable in my hands.

I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to turn back and say, “Hello, you. Thanks! And wait till you see how it all turns out.”

12 thoughts on “Hello, Back There

  1. I, too, like to look through my recipe boxes—it is like taking a trip through time. There are recipes there I know I will never make, but I can’t throw them away. It would be like disposing of my long-lost sorority sister who wrote one or my fifth grade teacher who hasn’t been with us for years.

  2. Sue

    I SO enjoyed devouring this…it’s totally delectable, Pam~beyond just recipes.
    You were repurposing well-before recycling was a ‘thing’…but with true meaning!

  3. This really resonated with me — a cook and a collector and frugal! I mix and match pantry and fridge ingredients (25 km from the nearest store and I save borrowing from the neighbours for an emergency).
    Now that I’ve just semi retired it’s been on my list to organize these binders and folders and turf a few things. Now I know I will look at it quite differently after this wonderful post.
    Your words are so well connected and thought out. So glad I wandered to your blog one day.

    1. Wow…that’s a hike for groceries! I do not have that distance, but I am trying to cut down on grocery store trips…it saps the creativity when I just run out and buy ingredients…

      Thanks for these wonderful words, bernieLynne!

  4. something about rifling through those old clippings and and recipes!! My fave is to go through my grandmas cookbooks and clippings! What legacy like this will I leave to my grandies? Hope your soup and cake were good Pam! I’m thinking soup today too!

  5. judy kirst

    I once took care of a very sweet elderly German woman named Flora. I was friends with her Granddaughter. She was 93 years old when I began to care for her and she was so proud of her recipe file. To me it resembled the old library catalog file with the book info on index cards. This box was huge and sat on her counter top. The majority of her index cards were hand written in neat cursive writing. I admired this box of treasured recipes. At 96 years old Flora fell down the stairs at home (yep, she still lived alone in her own home) while rushing to the door for her meal on wheels lunch. Spent 3 years in the nursing home before passing away 3 months before her 100th birthday. Her treasured box of recipes were discarded by her son and daughter. Your article brought her to my mind today.

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