I do still have the recipe for my mother’s “Casserole Dish” — a concoction of noodles, cheese, mushrooms, onions, olives and then some. “From mother, 1961.”
Casseroles were a big thing in the 1950s and early ’60s — easy and inexpensive, if a bit gloppy. My brother loved that dish, though Mom did not make it that often. She tried to cook healthy food, or what we then thought was healthy: roast beef, roast chicken, London broil. She made a great sauce for spaghetti (not pasta, thank you), given to her when she was a newlywed by an Italian-American landlady. Mom never wrote down that recipe, and though I know it included chuck steak and Italian peeled tomatoes, I have never been able to reproduce it. A loss, but one that, in a way, heightens my memories of those special spaghetti dinners.
Looking at these pages, I am reminded that my cooking focus evolved over time, reflecting our country’s changing tastes. Less (or no) butter, more olive oil. Less meat, more fish, fresh salads and al dente vegetables. West Lake fish soup, a Mark Bittman New York Times recipe low on fat and high on healthy ingredients. Recipes from Oprah Winfrey — for oven-baked “fried” potatoes (coat in egg whites, salt, bake). Salads, turkey loaf instead of meatloaf, low fat, low cholesterol, low sugar.
Marian Burros of The Times would run a “nutritional analysis” with many of her recipes, and I studied them like a student prepping for the LSATs. Instead of cookies or cakes, I made sugar-free baked apples. I roasted autumn vegetables sprinkled with salt and drizzled with olive oil. I made simple poached salmon. For a cold summer soup, I picked a pile of sorrel that grows like a weed in my Fire Island garden.
Fire Island, where my future husband and I spent our first summer together. There, I cooked with the freshest ingredients I could grow or find. Salads. Sautéed Swiss chard and bok choy. Chilled blueberry soup. And blueberry pie, both featuring wild berries.
My friend Sarah and I used to brave deer ticks and poison ivy to pick those Fire Island blueberries — tart, winy and now gone, the bushes uprooted to make way for new houses. Cultivated blueberries do not cut it, so I no longer make that pie or soup. But I still have those recipes, to remind me of a special time in my life.
Which is the point, of course.
I have not and never will clean out, digitize or otherwise impose order on my recipe files, because each handwritten list of ingredient, each flaking newspaper cutting, is part of my story. I look at a recipe and memories come flooding back, as they do for a friend who, trying to declutter, was loath to part with even one of her many ramekins. She was not obsessed with ramekins. She was obsessed with the memories attached to each one.