Writ large

Behold: the handwritten note, the smudged recipe

By
February 18, 2008

This is a paean to the hand. A plea, almost, for pen and paper. Somehow the handwritten word conveys not just information, but an essence of the writer.

Like a lot of people, I keep folders of clippings and articles, words printed on actual paper and torn from magazines and newspapers that I think I might refer to again some day. But I find that I forget about them, because they end up living crammed in the metal drawers of my file cabinets. What’s worse, the file cabinets live in a closet, so although they provide a useful surface for keeping shoes, they are out of sight, and as they say, they’re also quite out of mind.

It’s happened more than once — and I’m not proud of this — that upon finishing a book and having some time off between projects, I go through my files to clean them out, and there I uncover all the bits and pieces I had been saving to refer to for the very project I’ve just completed. There they are, unseen and untouched, until now, when it’s too late.

So, while looking for a title certificate for a car this week and not finding it in my “Car” file, I started going through all my folders, knowing that it’s always possible to drop things carelessly in the wrong place. I didn’t find the title, but I did find some interesting collections of articles from the New York Times, things that have since become books like The Omnivore’s Dilemma.

What does a handwritten recipe say about the person who copied it down?

I found old clippings of recipes that still look pretty good, and others that look silly and amusingly dated. There were handsome menus from special dinners that brought back memories of cooking in different cities with old friends. But maybe the most compelling were those files that were filled with three-by-five cards and pieces of paper that were written on by hand or typed upon. You can imagine how old they were.

Or maybe you can’t. But I can tell you that there were recipe cards from my days at Greens, in the early 1980s, with old recipes written out by hand, like Spaghetti Frittata, which called for five pounds of pasta and two quarts of sliced onions, but oddly, no mention of eggs. There was a larger recipe card from my friend Ann in Flagstaff for a Cottage Cheese Stollen that, coincidentally, I had made that very morning, for it found a place in my book The Savory Way years ago. And I was glad to find her card, because it clarified a matter for me, and also it was warming to see her handwriting and her personal notes.

A recipe for Raisin Squares, which also resides in The Savory Way, was written out in my grandmother’s beautiful round but shaky hand on crinkly thin paper. She always wrote with a fountain pen, and she penned this recipe for me at the end of her life. It was preceded by a kind and loving note, which was just how her gift of raisin squares felt when they arrived, carefully packed, in the mail — kind and loving.

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There’s the big ebullient scrawl of my sister’s recipe for pasta with caramelized onions. I already have that recipe down, but apparently I couldn’t bring myself to throw away her enthusiastic scribble.

Turning the page over, I saw that it was written on the back of a Chez Panisse menu from 1978, 30 years ago, almost to the day, in fact. Were we eating there that week, we would have enjoyed such dishes as Garrapata trout wrapped in bacon and grilled over charcoal, fresh asparagus served in puff pastry with hollandaise sauce, baby artichokes with tapenade, and my favorite from that era, a Provençal goat-cheese tart.

When I saw the menu was for Valentine’s Day, I remembered that it was my parents who had eaten there that night, a romantic occasion for a couple dangerously near the end of their marriage.

Reading the menu, I saw also how it marked a particular moment in time for Chez Panisse. Then there were no references to sources except to the Garrapata trout. Many of the dishes seemed very French — the puff pastry, the hollandaise, terrines, a fish ragout from Charentes — with references to Alice B. Toklas and Maxim’s. No hint of Italy had yet crept into play on that stage. The costs of the dinners were $12.50. Although the menu had been Xeroxed, it had been typed first and you can see that the “m’s” were a little faint, and the accent over the word “purée” was drawn in by hand.

I also found notes I had typed up from a talk that Alan Chadwick had given on artistry in the kitchen. That’s when I heard him say, “Cooking is done in the garden. When that’s not complete, the gardening takes place in the kitchen.” The content on these pages is fascinating to read, for me anyway, and it brought back the hushed expectancy of those of us who filled his sickroom and listened to him talk about plants and food, grasping for words like “noyau” and stammering with frustration when he couldn’t find them. “Arrowroot is a weed; it grows in a bog and has charming flowers.” “True rennet is an herb. Put a little handful in the milk and it goes solid.” “For a sauce, take milk. Place onions, peeled and halved, peppercorns, mixed spices. Simmer and let reduce for a half-hour. Strain.” There’s a technique I’ve used ever since for infusing milk with flavor.

But it’s not just the content that matters and amuses. I could have saved this information electronically and probably have done so. More, it’s the feel of the paper, the inconsistent look of my typing, the mistakes, the feeling of urgency to get it down the way he said it that comes through. The typing paper bears a watermark, and after 28 years it has a crinkly, parchment-like feel. Holding it and reading it through, I am rewarded with much more information than the words on the page.

There are more pages in this folder. Quotes about food and eating from Memoirs of Hadrian, Rilke’s sonnets, “My Dinner with Andre.” A piece from Andre Simon is about how medical science is now justifying the wisdom of eating more vegetables and less meat.

There are little essays I typed on the thin stationery from the American Academy in Rome when I was living and working there. Everything has a faded, letterpress look that feels handmade and personal. After all, a typewriter is a kind of letterpress, really. Your fingers hit the keys and press the ink into the paper. Wham! Your weak fingers show up in the faded “a’s” and “z’s,” where the ribbon didn’t get inked enough. Your strong forefingers make smudgy “t’s” and “y’s.” Ideally, all the letters should look the same, but because they don’t, I can recognize my typing as surely as I can recognize my handwriting. Both convey the stamp of a person.

Among the papers I was most happy to find were the lists I had made of foods I wanted to cook at Greens. Handwritten on yellow lined paper, sometimes in ink, sometimes in pencil, are the names of recipes, doodles, and question marks as I’m fitting things together in my mind, references to authors and books, check marks, page numbers, exclamation points when something really comes into focus.

Phone numbers of now-forgotten people to call for satsumas or violets are scribbled in the margins. Again, it’s not just the information that the words offer, although that’s interesting to me, but the hand and how it shows the times when it’s careful and deliberate, the times when it’s sloppy and tired-looking, when it gets distracted or stays focused. Mostly it conveys the incredible enthusiasm and sense of adventure I had then about cooking, the discovery of these recipes to cook.

This hand-to-paper reveals so much more than what I’m typing right now in Word. It speaks volumes about one’s self. I felt the impression of those who had taken time to write out a recipe, a sense of them. And I actually came away with an odd feeling of liking this person from so many years ago — her enthusiasm and her curiosity as well as all the imperfect qualities revealed by pen, pencil, and typewriter.

I wish I had saved more of these scraps and notes and recipe cards, for they truly are windows into the souls of those who wrote them. I think there’s a good reason for old-fashioned recipe-card exchanges that goes beyond the recipe itself. They are also gifts of one’s self.

Deborah Madison is the author of numerous award-winning cookbooks, including Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone. She lives in New Mexico.

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1. by Janine at Rustic Kitchen on Feb 20, 2008 at 1:16 PM PST

Deborah, it warms my hear to read this. My siblings and I recently created a custom cookbook for our parents’ 50th anniversary. My favorite part was going through my grandmother’s recipes, handwritten recipes on envelopes and random promotional stationery. She must have loved rum balls, because she wrote that one twice.
Best,
Janine

2. by JEP on Feb 21, 2008 at 2:42 AM PST

I have a theory that if I re-copy the original hand-written, stained or tattered recipe that it will never taste the same when prepared. I cherish many...thanks for the memories!

3. by Shar on Feb 21, 2008 at 9:42 AM PST

I just submitted a story I wrote in regards to email. Though technology has opened up a world to us “foodies”, our loss of sentiment and touch can not be duplicated. Even the voice of asking over the phone for that “special” recipe cannot be heard. Save your recipes, for the next generation.

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Deborah Madison, the celebrated cookbook author and local-food advocate, feeds us with her occasional reflections. Her latest book is Vegetable Literacy.

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