The beginning of a new year often prompts a look back on the ones past, and since my birthday is in January, I’m always particularly reflective this time of year. While I don’t have the sort of life that warrants a juicy, tell-all autobiography, I do have a book that tells the story of my life: my recipe book.
I started collecting recipes from my family when I was in college up north and missed the familiar foods of home. Both my grandmothers wrote me letters about once a week then (God, don’t you miss real letters?), and in my notes back to them I asked for the recipes of the dishes I had grown up on at their tables. What came in return to me were little recipe cards or notepaper with simple directions for biscuits, butterbeans and pecan pie in my grandmothers’ flowery handwriting, often accompanied by a five dollar bill and a stick of Double Mint gum.
I bought a plain blank book at the campus store and started pasting in the recipes they sent me, along with those for my dad’s famous gumbo, an apple and spinach salad my mom makes for dinner parties, and the vegetable lasagna from Ms. Mac, a favorite high school teacher who inspired me to become a vegetarian for a few years. Despite that choice, directions for curing a country ham is among the first recipes in the book, though when I thought I would need to do that in an old house shared with six college friends in Providence, Rhode Island is beyond me.
I continued adding to the book over the next years: a recipe for daal from the family my friend Maria lived with in Nepal, tuna steaks with balsamic glaze I made in my tiny studio apartment in Birmingham, garlicky linguine with clam sauce my friend Brianne made in the apartment we shared outside of Philadelphia, tuna casserole from my elementary school music teacher that I made in big batches and took to the Ronald McDonald house in Philly.
In the margins and empty spaces of the book, I write notes about adjustments I made to the recipe (“More nutmeg” to my favorite Bolognese sauce) and the dates and circumstances when I first tried it. A strawberry cheesecake notes “Made for Hannah’s 26th birthday—complimented by the chef at Deluxe!” in Wilmington, NC. That was a good night.
These days, when I’m looking back for a recipe, I don’t have the handy dividers that most cookbooks use to organize their recipes. Instead, I think back to the first time I made the dish and flip through the chronological story of my cooking and my life. I’ll remember making halibut en papillote in the galley kitchen of my little cottage at the beach and know that was after I attempted baked Alaska for Stevie’s going away party back to Anchorage but before I played around with the mojito chicken on cous cous in that blue-tiled kitchen of the first place I lived in Charlotte.
My recipe book is filled now, and most pages are splattered with the messes I made while making each dish. I’ve started a new collection now, but that first recipe book, my autobiography in food, will always help me tell the story of the last 10 years of my life and remember the amazing meals I had along the way.