I spent several days visiting my parents in between Thanksgiving and Christmas last month, and each early afternoon as she prepared our mugs of tea or coffee, my mom would pull down her recipe box from above the stove and ask “Well, what shall we have for dinner this evening?” For her and my father, this is a decision made day by day now that they are retired, instead of planned for a week in advance, and I envy this flexibility – the afternoon run to the grocery shop a nod to something like routine, the ability to decide each day what you feel like eating instead of anticipating days in advance.
I consider my mom to be, despite the numerous self-proclaimed foodies I know, the best cook I know. I would rather eat her dinners that at almost any other restaurant you could name, and tripping through her recipe box every day for over a week was both the smallest and greatest of joys – the recipe cards scrawled in her hand, the hands of her friends and that of both of my grandmothers. Calico beans, beef stroganoff, chicken piccata, sausage, peppers and potatoes, Best Rum Cake…
“Can I have this when you die?” I asked one night, referring to the recipe box as I paused at her recipe for my Grandma Conkle’s chili and cornbread.
“You can have it before then,” she said. “You can have it whenever I enter a home.”
“You aren’t going to have to go to a senior citizen’s home,” I laughed. “You could live with me.”
“No, I don’t mind the idea of that kind of place someday. And I’ll know the time is right when I no longer am interested in what’s for dinner.” My mom loves dinner, loves, in fact, all of her meals – she outeats everyone in the family without ever gaining weight. If she does happen to put on a few pounds, she will give up her daily chocolate, her daily cocktails or her daily bowl of icecream, for one week, and those pounds will disappear and she can return to enjoying all three once again.
“I don’t consider myself a particularly great cook,” my mom said while I was home, while we were reminscing over glasses of wine the way friends of mine and baby duck’s would just sometimes show up around dinner time (in our house, anytime after 7:30 was usually safe because, as my grandma used to say with great disdain, our family does not eat SUPPER. We DINE.) “I just have really great recipes.”
Her recipe box is actually fairly spare. It’s the same wooden box she’s had forever, and it is not overstuffed – it’s easy to locate any of the recipes you might need from her but it seems quite slight, after so many decades of cooking. “You don’t need to have a recipe for absolutely everything,” my mom said. “You just need a recipe for a few really, really good things.”
One of my resolutions this year – the most fun resolution out of all of them – is to establish a similar recipe box. I have recipes all over the place – saved in files on computers, marked as favorites on my browser, pages turned over in magazines, and it is all very slap-dash and disorganized and despite it all I never have a ready answer to “what are we having for dinner?” I have resolved to make two of these ignored recipes a week for the entire year and decide upon whether to keep them or not. Already I have thrown away an entire copy of “Cook’s Illustrated” – a gift from a family foodie – that had nothing in it I was interested in eating.
The first recipe I made a couple of days ago. I found the recipe in one of my email accounts, emailed to me from my mom years ago, for a “Cooking Light” version of chicken florentine. I desperately wanted it to turn out – I’ve been riding a particularly bad wave of cooking disasters for two months now and since it is hard to get S. to try new food under the most ideal conditions – I wanted and needed this recipe to be good, not only so I could put the first notecard in my recipe box but so I could share it with you.
It was…okay. It’s possible chicken florentine isn’t one of those recipes that benefits from lower-fat ingredients. S. and I both slogged through our portion but we didn’t do so raving about it. It was nothing more than an okay recipe, one that I would make again if I had the ingredients and nothing else in the fridge, but as I struggled as to whether I should have this be the first recipe I place in my recipe box I asked myself, would I ever make this for company? Would I ever actually order chicken florentine in a restaurant? Have I ever before in my life desired the dish? The answer to all three questions was a resounding no.
So I deleted the chicken florentine, people. My recipe box remains empty. Stay tuned. I have no idea what kind of recipes I’ve been saving over the years.