Recipe Boxes Are A Forgotten Treasure
It may be that every generation thinks they grew up in the greatest decade, but I’m pretty sure that I did. Actually, I enjoyed two great decades, the one of my childhood and the one of my teens.
Those decades produced some pretty cool things like cars that could be recognized, one from the other. Every man, woman and teen knew a Chevy from a Pontiac and a Buick from a Ford. There were definite distinctions, such as Buick’s three or four holes in the front fenders and Pontiac’s nose in the middle of the split grille and earlier an American Indian headdress. Cars had model names like Belair, Catalina, Fairlane and Galaxie rather than letters and numbers such as 300C, RX, ATS or MDX. The original muscle cars like GTO (Well, maybe a few had letters, but hey, it was a muscle car), Barracuda, Shelby and Roadrunner were in their heyday.
And how about those poodle skirts, Ben Casey shirts, twist blouses and clothing made from newspaper print fabric or the culottes, bellbottoms and mini-skirts? At the same time, we were rocking the saddle shoes, penny loafers, Bobby socks and go-go boots on our feet.
We can’t talk 50s and 60s without talking about the music that came by way of the radio or the 39-cent or three-for-a-dollar 45 rpm records or 33 1/3 albums. The 45s were the greatest. We’d stack our favorites on a spindle and play them on our small portable record players or, if we were lucky, our parents had purchased a cabinet model hi-fi. Ours was blonde. Stereos became popular mid-way through my teen years.
We had the best of the best and many of the songs are known by younger generations thanks to movies and TV commercials, such as “Peggy Sue,” “Rock Around the Clock,” “Unchained Melody,” “Splish Splash,” “Pretty Woman” and “Be My Baby.” Who doesn’t know and love Elvis, Buddy Holly and Jerry Lee Lewis? I loved the girl groups of the 60s like The Shirelles, The Chiffons, The Marvelettes, The Crystals, The Cookies and The Ronettes. Sonny and Cher, The Beatles, Bob Dylan and The Rolling Stones got their start in my day and I still have their early 45s and albums.
Our schools held dances every few weeks and there were other local spots where teens could go to dance the Stroll, Twist, Mashed Potatoes, Locomotion and Watusi.
Another awesome trend, that was going strong and we didn’t know would fade with the emergence of personal computers, was the recipe box. Every house had at least one. If a teen-aged girl didn’t have one in her hope chest (Yeah, they’re gone, too.), she received one for a bridal shower gift or bought her own soon after marriage. In fact, it was common for bridal shower attendees to bring a handwritten recipe on a 3-inch by 5-inch index card. That’s how my friends Denise Ormond and Margaret Milford started their recipe collections.
Recipe boxes were protected by their owners, much like wedding and baby pictures, birth certificates and other important papers. They were like little treasure chests. My sister, Twila Green, who has moved her recipe box to more than 20 homes, still has a special note her daughter wrote and left near the box about 47 years ago. The note says “Mother G. Niggel called she told me to tell you she wants you to call her right now. I love you VERY, VERY, VERY, VERY, VERY MUCH. LOVE DESIREE.”
Most people had recipe boxes made of metal or wood. Most of the metal boxes were made by Ohio Art and were brightly painted with a wide variety of designs.
Later, some of the greeting card companies sold recipe boxes made from brightly printed paperboard. Whether made of wood, metal or something else, there is a good chance if it was well-loved, it became scratched or chipped or sustained a broken hinge. Many boxes have gone through 50 decades still bearing evidence of the sticky backing from the original price tag. Some carry hardened doughy fingerprints from a baking project of long ago. Most have paper dust, food crumbs and tiny corners from when a few cards got bent and folded-over eventually causing the corners to break away.
The box itself is just the vessel that holds the precious contents, but is like a well-loved novel whose cover reminds one of what is held inside. The recipes may be written on plain white or a rainbow of pastel-colored index cards. The cards may be printed with a variety of food-related patterns, have lines with a place to write the name of the recipe donor or have that information pre-printed on them. Most boxes contain a mixture of all of these, plus recipes clipped from newspapers or magazines that have been taped onto the cards, where the tape has discolored and eventually dried out and fallen to the bottom of the box. Most, also, have recipes that never made it to a card and were placed in the front or back of the box, as well as recipes written on pieces of paper, intended to later be transferred to cards. If the paper is folded, it may have split open on the folds.
Magazines frequently had a strip of perforated recipe cards or lines on which to cut and supermarkets aisle had an occasional rack that held recipes near a product that was used in the dish. A few of both of these are usually found in most recipe boxes.
When the lid is flipped open, discolored or faded cards with food spills and greasy stains lie within, unless the owner has used the special clear plastic slipcovers made to keep them pristine. Stained, faded or containing a drop of dried vanilla extract, all recipes are treasured. Frequently used cards often have notations made by the user. If a recipe is written in a deceased loved one’s handwriting, they are more valuable than gold. In fact, some are more endearing if a stain is thought to be left behind by that loved one. When my sister-in-law gave my niece new cards on which she had written her own and her mother-in-law’s recipes, the daughter asked her mother for the original yellowed, battered cards used by the original owners.
I started my recipe box when I was about 12 or 13 years old with favorite recipes I had copied from my mother’s red and white check Better Homes and Garden’s Cookbook, which I now possess. I always asked to look at my mother’s friends’ recipe boxes when we would visit and this is where I got the ever-popular No Bake Cookie recipe in the early 60s. I have a few recipes I received in my teen years from a couple of ladies at church and I started copying or cutting recipes from the predecessor to this column when I was in ninth grade and still faithfully make some of them, such as Peanut Butter Marshmallow Fudge. Most of my recipes are dated and have the name of the donor on them.
By the time I was 20, I had purchased a second recipe box to which I moved the G through Z cream-colored dividers, each with a black letter or letters, used to organize the recipes in alphabetical order. I remember the dilemma of whether my recipe should go in front of the letter or behind. I decided mine should go in front, alphabetized according to classification. Taco Salad is under S, not T.
As I look through the first box, I read the names of the Christmas cookies I have made for many years, some since the late sixties, written on cards in various conditions. I recognize the Russian Tea Cakes recipe by the orange background on the small square piece of paper cut from a magazine dated Dec. 5, 986.
When I see the recipe for Carrot Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting, I remember copying it while watching “Meet the Millers” on Channel 4 when it was WBEN-TV. I was 16 or 17 years old and had never heard of carrot cake. I think of my daughter’s baby sitter, Adele Snyder, when I see the Prune Spice Cake recipe written in her writing.
The P section of the second box holds a lot of great recipes with warm memories, like the one written by my friend Judy Bohne for Pizza with a “be sure to wash hands” note added because I teased her when she told me she squeezed the tomatoes in her hands. I remember writing the Lemon Rice Pudding recipe as my first husband’s foster mother, Emma Gustafson, recited from memory the first time she visited us in our new house, when I was just 24 years old. I remember copying Thelma Duffee’s Strawberry Punch recipe when I ran into her in Fluvanna Super Duper in 1976 while shopping for punch ingredients for my sister’s wedding. Thelma had assured me that her punch was far better than the one I had planned to make and she was right. It is the only punch I have made since, serving it every Christmas Eve.
When I see the recipe cards written in my mother’s handwriting, after she left hers behind when she left my dad when I was ten years old, I think she must have wanted to contribute to my memory box. These were recipes she came across, but I am sure she never made.
Chad, my son, called again, a few weeks ago asking for the Chicken Divan recipe his aunt gave me in the early 70s. He calls his sister or me at least once a year searching for that one ingredient he may have forgotten in the recipe he makes from memory. Perhaps I should make a recipe box for him.
My niece tole-painted a picture of a teddy bear on her mother, Gert Whipkey’s, plain white metal recipe box. My sister-in-law received the box from her mother, but doesn’t remember if the box originated with her mother or her grandmother. The recipe she uses for Copper Pennies, cut from a plastic carrot bag, curled-up over the years, is held within.
I have included a few recipes found in my friends, my husband’s (Yes, he came with one.) and my recipe boxes. My Aunt Cora found the recipe for Kool-Aid Taffy on the package in the early sixties. After a few successful batches, her daughter, Barbara, tried making it with root beer flavored Kool-Aid with a totally different outcome. Instead of getting shiny, stretchy taffy, she ended up with thick root beer fudge. I happened to be at their house to witness this and liked it so much, I made it the same way one or twice. I don’t think root beer Kool-Aid is available any longer. I had to include my husband’s favorite Pineapple Cream Cheese Pie, a recipe his sister Liz always made for him when she knew he was going to visit. She almost always made two pies, one to share with him at their house and the other for him to take home.
Some people have put their recipes into documents and have to turn on a computer to view them. Others have printed them onto paper and put them into a book, but more often the younger cooks just look online when they want to prepare a dish. None of the above ways compares to a recipe box in my personal opinion.
Margaret Milford from
Arrange in deep casserole:
1st layer- sliced potatoes
2nd layer- sliced carrots
3rd layer- sliced onions
4th layer- sliced celery
5th layer- hamburger
6th layer- stewed tomatoes
7th layer- bread or cracker crumbs
Season each layer with salt, pepper and butter. Add 1/2 cup water. Cover and bake 1 1/2 hours at 350 degrees. Remove cover and brown. (A note from Marge said, “This is a complete meal with salad, rolls and dessert.)
Shirley Marvin from Rena Marvin
2 c white sugar
2 c light corn syrup
1/2 c water
Boil to 250 degrees. Drop in slowly:
2 c raw peanuts
Stir. Slow cook to 300 degrees and add:
1 level T soda
1 level T butter
1/2 tsp vanilla
Pour on 2 cookie sheets.
Chocolate Sheath Cake
Twila Green from Nancy Simmons-late 60s
Mix in bowl:
2 c sugar
2 c flour
Melt in pan. Bring to a boil, then mix with flour and sugar.
1 stick oleo
31/2 T cocoa
1 c water
1 c shortening (a name brand was mentioned)
1/2 c buttermilk
1 tsp soda
1 tsp vanilla
Put in greased and floured 13-inch by 9-inch by 2-inch pan. Bake at 400 degrees for 20 minutes.
Bring to a boil:
1 stick oleo
3-1/2 T cocoa
6 T milk
1-lb (3-3/4 c) confectioner’s sugar
1 tsp vanilla
Mix well and frost hot cake. Put chopped nuts on cake.
Lori Milliman from her Grandmother
Boil together for 10 minutes. Cool:
1-1/2 c raisins
2 c plus 2 T water
Mix together and then add to cooled raisin/liquid mixture:
1/2 to 3/4 c sugar
1 T shortening
2-1/2 c flour
2 tsp soda
If dough is stiff, add more water-slowly. Bake one hour in moderate oven (350 degrees).
Pineapple Cream Cheese Pie
Fred Rowland from
1-10-inch unbaked pie shell
1/3 c sugar
2 T cornstarch
20 oz crushed pineapple with juice
8 oz cream cheese, softened
1/2 c sugar
1/2 c milk
1/2 tsp vanilla
1/4 c pecans, coarsely crushed
Mix 1/3 cup sugar, cornstarch and pineapple. Cook over medium heat until thick and clear. Mix 1/2 cup sugar with cream cheese. Add eggs, one at a time, then add milk and vanilla. Put pineapple mixture in pie shell. Top with cream cheese mixture. Sprinkle with pecans. Bake for 1 hour at 350 degrees.
from Aunt Cora Bissell-early 1960s
1 pkg unsweetened Kool-Aid, any flavor, except root beer
2 c sugar
1/2 c butter
2/3 c milk
Mix ingredients in saucepan. Bring to boil; cook and stir until mixture makes a ball in cold water. Remove from heat and beat until thick. Pull until stiff.