Since my mother’s death several years ago, I’ve gathered a pile of hundreds of recipes from the derangement of papers every death leaves behind. I added a few hundred more when my grandmother—her mother-in-law—died a few years ago. This last cache of papers surprised me; I don’t remember my grandmother ever cooking a meal for anyone. She lived next door to my mother and father for the last 20 years of her life, a perpetual guest in my mother’s living room, subsisting mainly on cigarettes and beer and the hot dishes cooked by other women and brought to her like peace offerings.
Still, here they are: recipes, hundreds of recipes, cut out of newspapers and magazines, from the bottom of advertisements and off can labels and on index cards and notepaper. Some are in my grandmother’s crabbed, backward writing, but most are in my mother’s meticulous schoolteacher’s penmanship. A few are in mysterious hands, likely gifts from long-gone friends and neighbors scribbled on the backs of envelopes, bits of stationery, handed on, copied again and again.
These aren’t lost classics or great secrets. Most of them rely on a single quality––speed. Here is Vegetable à la Supreme, requiring cream of mushroom soup, frozen broccoli, Minute rice, and an entire bottle of Cheez Whiz. Here is Tomato Soup Salad, with canned soup, Knox gelatin, cottage cheese, mayonnaise, and stuffed olives. Here are Easy Deviled Ham ’n’ Cheesewich, Saccharin Pickles, Chicken Spaghetti. There are also a great many recipes using zucchini: zucchini with tomato juice, with fried onion rings, with cream cheese, with whipped cream, with cream of mushroom soup, with nuts and crushed pineapple.
These dishes are based in convenience, the ingenuity of making do with a few odd cans and boxes, combining anything and everything you can put your hands on so as to avoid yet another trip to the store. Here are the endless reinventions of fusion cuisine, the creativity of limited ethnic poverty, the patent simplicity of country people, all wrapped into a Jet Age suburban gift box. Weird and wonderful, this criminal urge to avoid work, this wily feminine conspiracy of three-by-five cards. My mother worked a lot. At the end of the day, what she wanted wasn’t food but time––time out of her labor, time to goof off in her armchair reading romances and drinking coffee, smoking while she watched Mike Douglas watch someone else cook something.
In this whole pile are only a few familiar items, like Porcupine Meatballs––hamburger and rice rolled into balls and baked in a sauce of canned tomato soup––and Pigs in Blankets. I don’t know if I loved the name, evocative of luxury and comfort, or the doughy combination of Vienna sausages and Bisquick, but they were one of my favorite treats, rarely had. The fact is that my mother cooked the same few things over and over. After a few swings at Porcupine Meatballs or Scalloped Potatoes and Spam, you don’t need a recipe. You don’t even need a shopping list, and so you certainly don’t need to plan too much or think too far ahead. She kept a pantry stocked well enough for cataclysmic natural disasters, but the hundreds of boxes and cans were simply variations of a few basic things. (You can make Porcupine Meatballs with tomato soup, with mushroom soup or with cheese soup, and call it something different every time.)
So why did she keep a recipe for eggplant stuffed with lunch meat, something our entire family (and perhaps the whole human race) would have loathed? Why did she save how-to plans for time-consuming, multilayer tortes when she never baked? Why menus for party foods and coffee klatches written in the careful hand of a woman who rarely went to parties and never entertained?
I wonder if my mother indulged in what writer Rosalind Coward, decades later, called "food pornography." "All the women I have talked to about food have confessed to enjoying it," wrote Coward. "Few activities it seems rival relaxing in bed with a good recipe book. Some indulged in full-color pictures of gleaming bodies of Cold Mackerel Basquaise lying invitingly on a bed of peppers, or perfectly formed chocolate mousse topped with mounds of cream. The intellectuals expressed a preference for erotica, Elizabeth David’s historical and literary titillation. All of us used the recipe books as aids to oral gratification, stimulants to imagine new combinations of food, ideas for producing a lovely meal."
I too keep a thick folder of untried recipes, torn from the newspaper and various magazines, handed to me by friends or scribbled from conversations. There are elaborate desserts meant to be served on linen tablecloths by candlelight, and hearty family suppers for a family I no longer have to feed. I’m still caught, like my mother, between what I’ve imagined and what I’ve known, what’s been given and what I’ve been able to take. I rarely use any of them. Like impulsively chosen lovers, a lot of my recipes look less appetizing in the cold light of day.
One of my mother’s old recipes is on a bit of stationery from a hotel in Reno. I don’t remember her going to Reno, and when I found it, I was suddenly, unreasonably glad that she went there. I could see her, laughing, drinking a martini, playing slot machines, staying up late with other secretly dissident women, smoking cigarettes, and not missing their husbands. But I was struck as well by a sudden small grief that she spent even one minute in Reno copying down a recipe.
I asked my sister, Susan, what she remembered of the suppers of our childhood. She was quiet for a long moment and then said, in a very small voice, "What I remember is that she wasn’t a very good cook." Susan said this as though it were a betrayal, and I know how she felt. Our mother was easily hurt, and she knew she wasn’t a good cook—which to her somehow meant she wasn’t entirely a good woman.
She did her needlework in the weary evening hours while my father slept stretched out loosely across the couch. Women’s work is all details, a lot of small stitches put into life one at a time. Needles keep the hands busy while the heart stirs in its difficult sleep; they weave a hypnotic and deliberate calm. Women have always done these things, made scarves, gloves, headdresses, quivers, swaddling boards, vestments, moccasins, veils, christening gowns, beaded necklaces to rattle in the dance––inner turmoil brought to ground and herded into pattern.
Women rein in their sorrows, their loneliness and denial, and make it into beautiful things bursting with erotic, joyful color, beautiful things not called art because they happen to be useful. My weary, educated mother not only collected useless recipes but also bought craft kits and sequins and felt and fabric paint and Rit dye. She took up embroidery in middle age. I was
disappointed in her when she did, of course. I was too restless for needles, too mad about the world. I wanted her to complain––not cook and clean, not sew.
I was a fool.
I believe now that my mother’s life was one of wrenchingly difficult choices. Only the fearful need courage, and only the lazy need discipline. Her courage was to go on, day by day, in spite of hungers buried deep. The needlework she tried (and failed) to master may have been a last-ditch attempt to be what she was not, what she could never be but still spent her whole life trying to become.
After dinner she cleared the table, put away food, washed the pots and pans, wiped the counter, and then closed the kitchen door against the sloshing roar of the dishwasher.
Such discipline––day in and day out, for many long years.
Reprinted from The Best Thing I Ever Tasted by Sallie Tisdale with permission of Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright 2000 by Sallie Tisdale.