Some time ago I discovered an old notebook of my mother’s hand-written recipes, but set it into a cupboard and forgot about it until recently. Last weekend my daughters Janice and Allison and I were discussing Christmas menu plans and recipes as we prepared a batch of antipasto and I remembered the book.
There are all kinds of things in it — handwritten recipes, recipes cut and pasted from magazines, recipe cards given to her by friends. There’s a typewritten recipe for Vanilla Mousse on floral stationery. I remember well how we came to have it. Mom occasionally played the organ at the Elizabethan Convent for the sisters’ masses, and sometimes our family attended too. Once in awhile we were invited to stay afterward for a meal or snack. On one occasion they served “vanilla mousse” for dessert (the sisters were skilled in their baking) and I was enthusiastic in my praise. One day my mom came home after visiting at the convent and she had the recipe — one of the sisters had given it to her because “Maureen liked it so much.” Memories of kindness taped inside a recipe book.
Looking at someone’s handwriting brings the person’s presence into the room in a strange and powerful way. Mom’s writing runs smoothly across the page in gentle, even letters — as gentle as she was. She would have enjoyed being with us as we chopped ingredients for antipasto.
Mom was a good “basic” cook in that our meals were never spicy or with unusual ingredients, so it’s not surprising to me that many of the recipes in this book are baking recipes, and she was a wonderful baker: lemon squares, pumpkin cake, date loaf, crumb cake. On one page was a recipe for Light Apricot Fruitcake with a note: “Tony loved this/92.” Tony was my dad.
The real surprise was turning a page to find two smaller loose pieces of paper tucked inside — from a “scribbler,” as my mother would have called it. The two pages are like yellowed parchment with tattered edges and must be decades old. But the writing isn’t my mother’s. They’re pages from my Auntie Marg’s baking notebook. I don’t know what they were doing there, but it was like discovering an archeological treasure.
Auntie Marg’s cookies were legendary. She always had baking in her tin on the cupboard, but her annual array of Christmas cookies was a wonder to behold — almond shortbread crescents dipped in chocolate, ginger sparklers, jam-jams, pinwheels (my favourite), Santa-, bell-, and star-shaped sugar cookies decorated with coloured icing (Santa's jacket always turned out a bright fuchsia, which seemed a more daring fashion statement than red) and sprinkles, neapolitan ice box cookies (I loved the cylinders of cookie dough wrapped in waxed paper and stacked like logs in the freezer).
I had been lamenting that I was missing the page of my little Robin Hood cookbook with the peanut butter cookie recipe, and here was Auntie Marg’s in her own handwriting on paper so delicate I lifted it carefully lest it crumble in my fingers. The pinwheel cookie recipe was there too.
Auntie Marg died Dec. 7, 2004. Weeks later, shortly before Christmas that year, each family received a labelled container of assorted Christmas cookies, baked, packaged and frozen by Auntie Marg.
Handwriting reveals more than mere ingredients. Auntie Marg’s curly letters remind me of the ’50s cookie and cake illustrations in my vintage Robin Hood Flour cookbook — her letters jump off the page with the spirit of love she baked into all of her creations. In my mother’s flowing script I can smell the cinnamon-and-cloves warmth of her crumb cake — simple and comforting.
My mother’s book has pages that are clean, and pages that are spattered with batter and grease — the indications of family favourites made over and over. When I think of how I cook now, it’s with either a laptop or an iPad perched on the counter. iPads are wiped clean if they are spattered. There are no dog-eared pages or grease marks to indicate which recipes are favoured. No “Russ loved this one” in the margins.
What will my children have to look through when I’m gone? There aren’t that many examples of my handwriting around the house.
Recently I went away for a weekend to visit my kids, and left Russ a note on the counter with some cat-care instructions. A few hours after I left I received a text: “I can’t read your writing beside the bowls on the island.” I texted back that it was instructions about Perdy’s canned cat food and Linus’ kibble, as well as something about the fresh water I hoped he would give them before he went to bed. Oh, he said. He thought it was a message from a client who had called, but he couldn’t make out the name.
It’s probably good I don’t hand-write any of my recipes.