I was born and bred in the Deep South, which means southern traditions run deep enough in me I don’t have to think about them. They bubble out of me spontaneously. Yet, some of these rituals are changing, to the point they are in danger of becoming extinct. One of these is The Recipe Box. Yes, I capitalized it because, here, it is a proper noun.
For those non-southerners who might be unfamiliar, The Recipe Box is the rolodex of the South. Whereas a rolodex contains small cards with the actual addresses and contact information of all the folks you know (Think…contact list on paper cards filed alphabetically), The Recipe Box identifies people by the food they cook and are most known for. It contains hundreds of handwritten family recipes which have been passed down for the ages. Not only that, it also is the gathering place of recipe clippings from magazines such as Southern Living, as well as cards from every friend, neighbor, or stranger who has ever prepared a mouthwatering dish for a potluck. (A potluck, in case you didn’t know, is where every cook in a church/neighborhood/school brings a pot of their most delicious food to set out on a long table so that everyone in attendance can eat themselves sick. During this event, the cooks verbally exchange recipes, which later become cards in The Recipe Box.) Every Southern family has a Recipe Box which identifies who their friends are, and what dishes they are most known for preparing.
The cards themselves are about the size of an index card. At the top of the card there are two lines which must be filled in before all the others. It is imperative. The first one says “From the kitchen of __________”. This is the line from which many Southern cooks gain their identity. It is similar to photo credit. It is faux pas to “steal” a recipe, without giving credit to the proper cook. The second line says “Recipe for_________”. This line is the title of the recipe, which often times contains the cook’s name as well as the dish. For example, Ethel’s Chocolate Cake, or MeMaw’s Bean Salad. Underneath these two lines, the recipe is written step by step, line by line, in the handwriting of the creator.
Most cards are then slipped into a plastic sleeve to protect them from cooking splatters while on the counter. They are filed away, not alphabetically, but by type of dish such as soups, salads, desserts. Some families have a whole separate box just for the desserts, because in the South desserts are more important than the meat. In our family box there is an entire section dedicated to cake icing. No joke.
The beauty of one of these boxes is that it is easy to pull recipes for each course of a meal. Starting with soup or salad, then moving onto the entree, and then the side dishes, and ending with dessert. A small stack of cards on the counter is all that is needed to prepare it all. Each card is used in turn, and once finished is easily wiped off and returned to its proper place in the box to be stored away until next time. The boxes can be plain index card boxes stored in a cupboard, or they can be beautifully decorated as to make it acceptable for them to sit in a kitchen window sill, out in the open.
The accumulation of these cards is the Southern Woman’s equivalent to collecting baseball cards. If you are able to get the coveted Emma’s Seven Layer Red Velvet Cake recipe, you add value to your collection. More obscure recipes add bulk, but the real valuable cards are the “Secret” recipes. They require an entire separate section in the box and they infer you are a good enough cook to be trusted with the mysteries of local families. Of course, you are never allowed to share them with anyone without first asking and receiving permission from their owner.
A Southern woman can collect many recipe boxes over her lifetime. In fact, the more boxes you have the more revered you are in southern cooking circles. Party planning is an art form in which several women meet, with boxes in tow. They pull out cards and read them to each other until there is a nod of agreement all around that a specific dish is the right one for the event. A party can be planned with recipes from multiple boxes all combining together to form a unified theme. It is truly amazing to participate in, or even just to watch. In the South cooking is a spectator sport.
We have moving Mom and Dad to a new place this week. In order to stay together as long as possible, Dad decided they needed a two bedroom to have room for 24-hour help, when it comes to that point. We are not there yet, but it may not be long. In the process of the move, we found The Recipe Box. Actually, we found several. They are no longer needed since Mom cannot read or cook the recipes contained in them. My sister Melinda and I brought them home to my house to go through. They are a who’s who of the women of our past. Aunts, grandmothers, friends from all walks and seasons. In a way it is a lost time. Neither of us want all the recipes, but we cannot throw them out either.
Similar to a family Bible, these boxes contain history. They are sacred to us. A memento to the strength of Southern women. A nod to our heritage. A reminder of Mom in good health and in her element. Even the handwriting brings tears of grief with it. In this one place, we have both our grandmothers, our aunts, and our mom. Their scrawled cards conjure up imaginary smells and ghost laughter from the kitchens of our past. A gaggle of women, caring for those they loved by doing what they did best…cooking.
Now, looking back, I see it as a spiritual practice. Finding fresh ingredients from farm or market, cutting off dead leaves or shucks, washing each item to remove pests, and then cooking them in such a way to bring out the flavor at its peak. See the metaphor for life? Finding Biblical truth. Cutting away dead works. Washing in grace. Then sharing the best with their family. Nurturing. Feeding. Pouring into us both physically, and spiritually. It is our turn now. The Recipe Box is a reminder of our lineage, which must somehow be passed down to a generation who no longer has time for the traditions of old. There has to be a way, to preserve and expand what used to be into a new time.
The Recipe Box is stored away, until we pull it out sometime for a family gathering and pick a theme for the party. Then it will spring to life and the voices from our past will be with us once again, laughing and loving….together.