I’ll preface what’s next with a very short and not too sad story about the life-long impact of shame: When I was tiny, I scribbled on a page in a book, and I was scolded so harshly, in front of other people, that I still, decades later, can barely bring myself to write, even in pencil, in a book that I own. Ridiculous? Certainly. So ridiculous that I now try regularly to overcome it, forcing myself to write notes in books, and cookbooks in particular, because handwritten notes are what make cookbooks come alive in a personal way and makes them almost like cooking journals.
What I do have, though, instead of handwritten notes on the actual pages of my books, are handwritten notes on pieces of paper that are stuck in my books, sometimes near their original reference and sometimes not. This particular habit dates back to when I started cooking on my own, for myself, and would stumble upon something I wanted to hang on to – either something I made up in a fit of kitchen exploration, or something that I enjoyed at someone else’s table and wanted to try and replicate.
A few weeks ago I was looking for something I had written down a long time ago but that I’d seen fairly recently (within the last year or two), so I thought I had a good memory for where I might find it again. I was very wrong about that, and I blame the pandemic for getting things all mixed up, in every way. What I expected to be an easy hunt turned into a day-long rifling through my cooking journal (started in 1989, and still going) and all of the cookbooks that had little edges of paper sticking out of the top.
I still haven’t found the recipe I sought, but I did find an old friend: A grease-stained, wrinkled pink sheet of Filofax paper on which I’d written the recipes for “Warren’s Pieces” (seasoned oyster crackers) and English Toffee Almond Butter Crunch. I remember writing these recipes, sitting in the warm kitchen of my friends Margie and Warren Arnold in Grafton, Massachusetts, a week or two before Christmas 1988. We were snacking and talking about photography and pickleball, and as a gift, to mark the occasion, Margie gave me an Army coat that had belonged to her brother, who had died fighting in WWII, because she knew I liked vintage things and thought I would enjoy having something that was dear to her. I’ve never worn the coat, but I still have it.
Warren, for whom “Warren’s Pieces” were obviously named, was a retired banker. Margie was a tennis player (she’d played doubles at Wimbledon and had photos to prove it) who decided, in her late 60s, to take up photography. She volunteered here and there at Noble & Greenough School, where I taught photography, art history, and 7th grade drama. Since I was a Southern girl, so far away from home, the Arnolds adopted me (and a few other young teacher friends). Their home was like a weekend camp retreat, with walks and pickleball lessons (to which I paid not a bit of attention – not one bit – and now wish I had), and food.
Margie was a good cook and an even better photographer, so we always had things to talk about. Warren also liked to cook, or at least to “tinker in the kitchen a bit,” as he put it, and he told very funny stories about their grand travels while we stood around, snacking and sipping wine and staying out of Margie’s way while she cooked dinner.
Every year at Christmas, the two of them made batch after batch of Warren’s pieces and Margie’s toffee. It was their holiday signature. I remember thinking, as I wrote down those two recipes, that one day I wanted to have this same tradition, to have a signature holiday food gift that I would make, package, and deliver with great love and joy. Once or twice, in the decades since then, I even managed to pull it off.
I tucked that pink sheet of paper not in the Filofax but in the back of the black, hardbound cooking journal that I started in the summer of 1989, before I left Boston. The recipe, the journal, and a copy of Beyond Parsley (a gift from a friend who visited me in Boston that summer) are still in my collection, as witnessed by the unexpected discovery a few weeks ago.
Reading my own scrawl (that has changed very little in 30 years) brought back all these happy memories and has had me thinking, in a slightly different way, about the personal signatures that come through, over time, in food and recipes. Like most every other home cook I know, my recipes are really just my notes. They include only enough detail to remind me of things I might otherwise goof up. Having written them by hand, they’re mostly firm in my memory anyway. I don’t actually need to see the instructions to know how to make “Warren’s Pieces,” but I wouldn’t dream of recycling that piece of paper, even though I now have a photograph of it.
That is true of every single slip of paper tucked in the pages of my cookbooks or taped into my falling-apart journal. I haven’t kept them for the instruction but for the stories that only I know, unless I decide to write them down, for myself or to pass along to my children (who have little interest in cooking, at the moment, but someday might).
At one point, not too long ago, I might have had a notion to get all those notes organized, to re-copy them on clean paper, prepare them to be something else. But I’ve let that, like so many other ill-fitting conventions, fade and dissolve. If things were tidy, they’d no longer be mine.
1 bag oyster crackers
1/2 cup oil
Juice from half a lemon
1 envelope powdered ranch dressing mix*
- Preheat oven to 200 degrees.
- Combine dry seasoning in a small glass bowl. *NOTE: This is no gourmet recipe, by any stretch. It’s a bar food recipe, so don’t get too caught up in the seasoning mix. You can, however, (and I do, to be clear) make your own mix of dry seasonings. You’ll need enough to coat the crackers well, and you’ll definitely need salt.
- Heat oil in a small saucepan until it’s just warm. Stir in lemon juice.
- Spread crackers on a baking sheet, aiming for a single layer (but don’t be fussy about this).
- Drizzle oil/lemon juice over crackers and toss to coat.
- Sprinkle dry seasoning over crackers and toss to coat.
- Bake about 10 minutes, until lightly browned. Serve warm from the oven or let cool and package as you wish to save for later or give as gifts.
Margie’s English Toffee – Almond Butter Crunch
2 sticks unsalted butter
2 c. white sugar
1 c. sliced almonds
3 c. semisweet chocolate chips
1 c. finely chopped pecans
- Butter a “jellyroll pan” (sheetpan) and set it aside.
- In a heavy saucepan, melt butter over medium heat.
- Add sugar and bring to a light boil, stirring attentively. Continue cooking until it reaches 260 degrees on a candy thermometer.
- Add pecans and continue cooking until it reaches 295 degrees on a candy thermometer.
- Pour the hot candy onto the buttered pan.
- Immediately sprinkle the chocolate chips over the hot toffee, and use a spatula to spread the chocolate as it melts.
- Sprinkle the almonds over the melted chocolate.
- Let cool in the refrigerator, break into pieces, and serve/give away.
This post is 26/56 in a self-directed challenge to write (or at least post) something (SOMETHING) every day – a birthday gift to me from me, because writing gives me a place to put the clutter that lives in my head.
Lovely. But, really, just write in the books. They’re not library books. They’re yours and you can do whatever you want with them. And somebody, someday, might really enjoy reading it.
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I know I know! You are my role model on this one.
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Great post, thank you for a lovely read. Yes, we can carry childhood shame into adulthood, I don’t think its something we ever leave behind, especially from those days of public shaming. Loved the recipes and that you have found a unique way to overcome your aversion to writing in books. Happy scribbling x Linda
A delightful tale!!! You have me thinking of my mom’s old cookbooks. I knew precisely where they were in the old house, but since the move, nearly 6 years ago now, I’m not sure of anything. My darling hubby has put our oddments and thises and thats into lovely clear huge plastic containers .. which are stacked up, 4 or 5 high, in the storage room. Sigh. But … me not being much of a cook (and not liking heights and ladders) … and now with health stuff not able to eat practically anything, it’s probably just as well I stay away from Mom’s old recipes. I would, however, love to see HER notes!!! Thanks for the thought … and the idea … I just might scramble up those plastic mountains anyway, to see what I can see!!! Good luck on your wrting challenge!!!
I’m so glad you included the recipes at the end of this post. I will be trying them out. There is something so special about coming across handwritten whatnots in old cookbooks. For years, my sister would give me a copy of the cookbook full of recipes provided by her and co-workers at the Veterans Home where she works. Best part was seeing her bubble handwriting in the margins. She would say things like “Soo delicious!” or “I use Cornflakes instead of Rice Krispies and it turned out great!”. This was a terrific post.
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Thank you! Yes, there is something very special and personal about all of this. “Bubble handwriting” made me smile. I’ll be curious to hear your results if you try these. Those oyster crackers are really addictive.
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