For the manuscript cookbook, a writing tradition dating back to the 19th century, the clues to a past life are in the language, the handwriting, and the oil-splattered recipes from long-forgotten meals.
During a recent move, as belongings were stuffed in boxes, I put together the one bag I would carry on my person to the new house, full of the things too precious to be let out of sight. As always, it contained important documents, some family jewelry, the first-edition e.e. cummings that my siblings bought me for a milestone birthday, and our good chef knives. This time, I also brought two journal-like notebooks, both beat up and stained: the recipe book I have been keeping since I was a teenager and the recipe book belonging to my 13-year-old son.
These handwritten collections are casual, not formal, and they serve no purpose other than to be a repository for the things we like to cook and eat, a single place to store recipes that we want to remember for practical or personal reasons: family recipes, recipes from cookbooks, things we’ve invented, recipes from friends. A few years ago, these two books wouldn’t have made it into the prized possessions bag—they were such a casual part of our life that I’d never have thought to do anything but plonk them in a box with our other cookbooks. But then, when my mother moved to California in 2013, her luggage went missing. She was worried about her clothes and other belongings, but a true panic came over the whole family when we realized that her recipe book, the one all the others were fashioned after, was in the missing bag.
My mother’s book was originally purchased as a wedding gift for friends during the summer she was 18. It has a colorful fabric cover, and the first few recipes (chocolate pudding, a six-page recipe for sachertorte) were written by the gifter for the benefit of the newlyweds. As she started filling out the pages with her favorite recipes, she began to feel apprehensive, worrying that a handwritten cookbook was too shabby a gift for her affluent friends. I don’t know if she ever bought them a replacement gift, but I do know she kept it, and kept writing recipes in it, and never stopped.
Its pages tell the story of her life over five decades, by way of the things she was eating and cooking though her early 20s, her first marriage, her years with my father, her move from America to Australia and back again, her years with my stepfather, her Mexican-cooking phase, her Thai-cooking phase, her years in New York, her years in North Carolina. The clues are subtle and not so subtle. During her time in Australia, ingredients take on the local slang—“chicken” becomes “chook”— and measurements are written in metric.
But there are auxiliary clues as well: recipes in the handwriting of old lovers (my father’s chicken liver pâté; my stepfather’s “noodle number”), one page (containing the bread recipe from the classic ’70s cookbook Living on the Earth) covered in the loopy drawings of a friend who was tripping on acid at the time. Recently she told me that friend could recite most of Dante’s Inferno by heart and was one of the first people she knew to come out as gay. He was also one of the first she knew to die of AIDs, in the early ’80s. This isn’t the kind of history you might expect to uncover when asking your mother to look up a recipe for sour cream coffee cake, but her book facilitates these adjacent stories, the food but also the life lived alongside the food.
When I was a kid, I scoured the pages of her book in order to learn the language of cooking, told here in a dialect much more familiar and intimate than the contents of any printed cookbook. But I also read it to find clues to her life before my arrival. The wider loop of her handwriting as a younger woman, the language of a recipe, the placement of her tastes along the food timeline of her life—rice pilaf in the ’60s, massaman curry in the ’90s—all revealed things about her history. Reading the book, and cooking from it, was an act of edible archaeology.
In the writing of this article I learned there’s a name for this type of personal handwritten recipe book: manuscript cookbooks. I made this discovery thanks to Marilynn and Sheila Brass, two Massachusetts sisters who later in life became cookbook authors and TV personalities. The pair have been collecting manuscript cookbooks for decades and now have over 250, dating as far back as the 1700s. One of them is held together with nails, another with safety pins.
According to the Brass sisters, most of these books are very much like my mother’s. “Reading each one is like unraveling a puzzle,” Marilynn says. The clues are in the language, the handwriting, the ingredients. Some of the very old American ones use the English word “biscuit” instead of “cookie.” During wartime, they’re written with rationing in mind. “We have one from Maine that was likely started in the 1880s and goes through the 1950s,” Marilynn says, adding that it was written by three different generations, with three different sets of handwriting. Other things act as clues. “People wrote prayers in there. There are cures for common household ailments. How to get rid of stains, how to mothproof your clothes. We found a love letter in one.”
Reading the book, and cooking from it, was an act of edible archaeology.
When I moved away from home at 19, I knew I’d need my own recipe book in which to carry our family recipes across the country. But the origin of my book reveals a clue that I’d perhaps rather erase. Basically, I stole my little sister’s diary. She was nine at the time and had a silver sparkly journal that I liked and wanted, and so I took it. A few months later, wracked with guilt, I called her and confessed and offered to buy her a new diary. She seemed completely unbothered and was excited at the promise of someone buying her something. But I still see the book, in part, as a symbol of my teenaged selfishness.
And so the first pages of my book are not recipes at all, but the adorable wonky diary entries of a nine-year-old girl. “I’m missing my last day of Mr. Albani’s class because I’m stupid ugly sick,” one entry reads. “Ba-humbug!” On the opposite page, in my own handwriting, is the recipe for “Super Hot Fudge Sauce,” the first thing I copied out of my mother’s book. In the following pages, the diary entries and recipes are jumbled, and then it’s just recipes, along with the occasional lovelorn poem written during that first year away from home, products of heartbreak I barely remember. Over the years I’ve experimented with different styles—for a while, rather than write out ingredient lists, I simply underlined the ingredients as they appeared in a narrative paragraph of cooking directions. Some I can tell I wrote out as someone dictated them to me over the phone.
There’s no formula for what goes in there, or how, or when. Some recipes I write down as a reminder to cook something in the future; some I write after the fact, when a made-up dinner was better than expected. I don’t record everything I cook, only the recipes worth saving for one reason or another. That in and of itself tells a certain kind of story—I’m not sure I care that much what we ate for dinner on a random Thursday last November, but I do care what recipes excited me enough during the year I lived in Oakland in 1997 to have written them down. (The answer is “Sarah’s mom’s quinoa stuff.”)
It’s interesting to me that the first recipe written in my mother’s book was chocolate pudding while mine was hot fudge sauce—it’s as if we both began with our most basic childhood excitement around food. My mother’s hot fudge sauce is the first foodstuff about which I remember being passionate; the same is true for her and her own mother’s chocolate pudding. My book is much like my mother’s in other ways, too. There are recipes written in the handwriting of old boyfriends, family recipes, recipes I made up myself and wanted to record. There are diagrams for sculptures I planned but never made and inside jokes in recipe form. One, titled “Katie’s favorite pasta,” has a single line of text: “Lots of onions.” I had made a pasta sauce with about four different kinds of onions—shallots, leeks, garlic, yellow onion—cooked down in olive oil, plus tomato and squash and fresh herbs. My friend Katie claimed (loudly, constantly) to hate onions, but she showed up and tasted the pasta and loved it, and that one line of extreme shade, which I wrote out in front of her, has been enough for me to remember the recipe ever since.
There are recipes written in the handwriting of old boyfriends, family recipes, recipes I made up myself and wanted to record.
My 13-year-old son started his book as a small child, instinctually understanding that he needed a place of his own to record the things he learned to cook. Recently, he told me he wanted to start over with a new book, being slightly ashamed of his taste in design (his is green leather with Celtic patterns on the cover) and his childish early recipe titles: “Crazy Freakin Pie Crust-O-Awesomeness!” I told him about the shameful beginnings of my own book and that the point of these things is, in part, to document our lives, the good and the bad.
As for my mother’s lost book, after a few excruciating days, her luggage was returned unharmed. And I had formulated a plan to grab my own book from its drawer in the kitchen (as well as my son’s) if the house ever burned down. Now, on moving day, the books come with me, along with the knives and passports and family jewels. Sometimes you don’t even realize what your prized possessions are until the threat of losing them is real.
You would not be able to use my book to expand your cooking repertoire much—the instructions are rarely great, the focus is mainly on entrées and desserts, there’s no organization other than the passage of time. It isn’t meant for other cooks; it’s meant for me. As such, it tells my own emotional history through the things I love to eat. There’s the quiche recipe my father made for my mother the night they fell in love, the sauce I made for my husband the night we fell in love, the soup I make for my family on nights they need edible proof that they are loved. There are no footnotes to explain these things. It’s just a record of who I am, through all my phases of taste and behavior and cooking and being.
But if you were to start your own book, it could be whatever you wanted it to be.