Intangible Ingredients

Sara Etgen-Baker

Runner-up in the  2022 Winners Circle

Open Nonfiction Contest

© Copyright 2022 by Sara Etgen-Baker
Photo proberty of Sara.
          Mother, Winfred Stainbrook Etgen
                  Photo property of  Sara.
Poto property of Sara.
        Granny, Helen Morain Stainbrook  
                Photo property of  Sara.

After Granny died, Mother requested only one item from her mother’s possessions. “All I really want,” Mother told my uncle, “are her old recipe cards and antique file box.” Mother’s request puzzled me, for I knew Mother didn’t need the recipe cards and file box for any practical reason. She’d known for decades how to make Granny’s pumpernickel bread, sauerkraut, and her breakfast specialty—streusel kuchen.
But when the file box arrived a few days later, Mother stopped what she was doing and sat down at her kitchen table where she gingerly opened the box. Mother sniffed its contents. “It smells just like my mother’s kitchen!” She handed me the box. “Take a whiff. Don’t you agree?”

I held the box next to my nose and took a long sniff. “Yes! It smells like her beef Rouladen,” I said smacking my lips.
She did make the most delicious beef Rouladen, didn’t she?” A smile lit up her face. “It was so tender and juicy that it just melted in my mouth. Maybe we can find her recipe.”

So over the next several hours Mother and I sat together and pored over the box’s contents. We discovered recipe cards, photos, mementos, and handwritten notes as well as newspaper and magazine clippings including an 8-cent coupon for Mazola Margarine. The file box also had all sorts of tabs to categorize recipes; yet, there was no discernible organization to the box’s contents. Apparently, Granny and I shared the same familial talent for recipe organization. There was a futile attempt at arrangement, but the separation of meat dishes from desserts had long since been abandoned.
Instead, the jumbled recipe cards and the memorabilia were a road map of Granny’s life—a life that had survived two world wars, the Great Depression, and encompassed a long marriage that included raising four children who had gone on to have children of their own. 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.

When I rummaged through Granny’s yellowed, timeworn recipe cards, a heartwarming aroma filled my nostrils. The cards smelled like long-ago used spices and were dog-eared, stained, and written in Granny’s penmanship—the same penmanship I’d seen so many times on the letters, cards, and notes she’d sent me. The cards were spattered with grease stains and marked with thumbprints. And 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 streusel kuchen and hearing her say, “Oh, sweetie, this is my favorite dessert. No need to bother with the recipe card. Just watch and learn.”

Yet when Mother and I cooked in Mother’s kitchen, we often referred to Granny’s recipe cards. Frequently, though, the cards just listed the ingredients without exact quantities; and 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? Exactly how much is a spoonful? And, what does simmer until it smells heavenly mean?

A good cook should know the basics,” she replied. “Besides, recipes aren’t meant to be precise; they’re merely meant to jog the memory of how to make those dishes.”

Well, if the recipes aren’t accurate why do you use them?” I threw her a bewildered look. “Besides, you know the recipes by heart so why do you keep the cards?”

True. Granny’s recipes are inexact and slightly out-of-date. And, yes, I can make most of her recipes with my eyes closed. I guess,” she murmured blinking back the tears, “I just don’t have the heart to throw away the recipes and file box.”

But why?” I raised a quizzical eyebrow.
I suppose I want to study the original recipe. I just can’t explain it to you.” She turned away from me and continued cooking.
All too often I watched Mother take out a single recipe card and just linger over it. I soon realized that perhaps the knowledge the cards evoked wasn’t limited to the information contained in their instructions. Maybe Mother just wanted to hear Granny’s voice and remember the past. Perhaps holding Granny’s recipe card while she stirred and sifted allowed Mother to recall the precious intangible ingredients with which the finished product would be imbued.

Because Granny didn’t spend her time pouring her heart into a diary, her recipe file box was the nearest approximation to a journal and the most intimate thing she left behind. It was full of time, memories, and love; it was bigger than her. It was also an accidental charter of her family’s history, values, and traditions rendered on 3-by-5 index cards that Mother deeply cherished. After Granny died, perhaps Mother simply needed the recipe’s intangible context—the years of experience, life, and circumstance that brought it to the family.

For that reason, Granny’s file box and recipe cards were more powerful than unearthing an old photo album or treasured piece of clothing that held the lingering scent of her perfume. That box and its contents gave Mother and I the opportunity to peek into Granny’s everyday life and better understand family. When Mother passed away a few years ago, the only items of hers I really wanted were her cookbooks and, of course, Granny’s recipe cards and the heirloom file box. I would have cherished them just as Mother had. However, somehow the dog-eared, limp recipe cards and antique box disappeared just as Mother’s memory did.

Now I wish I’d gone through Granny’s file box with Mother and heard her stories of cooking alongside her own mother. And sometimes I want nothing more than to step back in time and smell Granny’s cooking. Occasionally, I can picture her taking the streusel kuchen out of her oven with her old red and yellow oven mitts; placing the kuchen on the table; 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 still re-create her recipe in my head. So I bake her streusel kuchen, breathing in the sweet aroma of yeast, cinnamon, and sugar as it wafts through the air in my kitchen. I close my eyes and once again find myself back in Granny’s kitchen. Sometimes, I swear I can hear her voice whispering to me, “Sweetie, you remembered how to make my favorite streusel kuchen! And see, you didn’t need to bother with the recipe.”

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