The Inheritance

By Joyce Maynard, "The Inheritance,"May/June 2012

Author Joyce Maynard's essay on inheriting her mother's recipe box.

In the family where I was raised, money came in short supply, but casseroles and cookies were plentiful.

They were homemade, always—the ingredients and instructions for each written on a card in my mother’s recipe box. It sat on our kitchen counter at all times—with those Pennsylvania Dutch girls printed on the top—never completely closed, because there were just so many cards jammed in, alongside the coupons and box tops and Green Stamps.

Not that my mother didn’t have some other talents. She’d earned herself a Ph.D. from Radcliffe. She had hundreds of poems committed to memory. She could conjugate Latin verbs or paint shutters while singing along to Johnny Cash or Don Giovanni or inspire a classroom of the enlisted men to whom she taught English, to shed tears for Ethan Frome. She sewed her dresses, and my sister’s and mine, and those of our dolls. But in some ways, her greatest opportunities for self-expression occurred in our kitchen.

Next: How It All Began »

Some of the recipes in my mother’s box came from my grandmother—a wonderful baker, who’d brought her own cookie recipes with her when, as a young Jewish girl escaping the pogroms, she emigrated from Russia. So there were butter cookies with meringue on top, and little round wheels with thumbprints in the middle filled with homemade jam, and hazelnut crescents dusted with powdered sugar.

My mother copied recipes from magazines, too, but when she did, she always ended up adapting them in ways that honored certain core beliefs about food: Real was better than artificial. Rich was always superior to low-fat. (If 3/4 cup of butter was good, a cup was probably better.) As for margarine: all my mother had to say about a person—if she wanted to convey a low opinion of her—was to mention that the woman baked with Parkay. Or that she used garlic powder or “imitation vanilla” extract.

I’ve known women, over the years, who kept their recipes secret (and a few who shared them, but with some crucial ingredient missing) to ensure that no one could replicate that spaghetti sauce, that curry. But my mother loved making copies of her recipe cards, and exchanging them so her box was also filled with recipes bearing names: Betty’s Anadama Bread. Lillian’s Gingersnaps. Mum’s Borscht.

Next: Leaving a Legacy »

She taught me how to bake—less by any formal instruction than from years spent watching her brisk, confident, joyful approach in the kitchen, the thumb in the eggshell to scoop out the last drop of white, the authority with which she wielded her pastry blender and her rolling pin. But because I always assumed she’d live forever —she was the type who gave that impression—I never sat her down to ask how she kept her roast chicken so wonderfully moist or what the secret was to that flaky pie crust.

I was 35½ when the diagnosis came, of the brain tumor, and not quite 36 when she died—at 67, way too young, her cupboard spilling out with ingredients and a freezerful of giblets from the last 15 or 20 chickens she’d purchased. Kept to make broth.

Our inheritance didn’t add up to much, but I had no doubt, when my sister and I cleaned out our old house, that I wanted her file box filled with recipe cards, with those Dutch girls hurrying across the top and sides.

Next: Time Marches On »

Twenty-three years have passed now, since my mother died—and of course, few of us use recipe cards anymore. So many speak of another era: salmon mousse, made in a fish-shaped mold, with canned salmon and cream and gelatin powder; hamburger casserole with tomato paste, onions, cottage cheese and sour cream; and curried eggs.

But I like to reread the cards now and then, for the glimpse they give me of the woman who chose to file them away, with their little comments (“a pound of butter—ha ha”; “Look for chicken wings at fifteen cents a pound. They add so much style!”).

All these years later, I choke up at the sight of my mother’s handwriting, and the little splashes on the cards from some batter or other, dripping from her spatula. Like me, my mother was never a tidy cook, and regarded with a certain suspicion those who were. How could a person prepare food with the appropriate level of joy, if she was always busy sponging off the counter?

In case any doubt remained about her attitude, there was—at the bottom of each card—her trademark signature, made in a single swipe of her pen. Just a squiggle, really, but it’s how she finished off her letters, and she left it on her recipe cards, too: a dancing girl, one arm flung overhead, skirt twirling out around her.

Joyce Maynard’s novel Labor Day is due to begin filming this summer. In the film, the character played by Josh Brolin will be baking a pie using Joyce’s mother’s instructions.

Illustration: Gavin Potenza