Southern

Searching for Home in Aunt Mariah’s Recipe Box

by:
June 26, 2018

Good food is worth a thousand words—sometimes more! In My Family Recipe, a writer shares the story of a single dish they've inherited, and why it's meaningful to them.

Photo by Danie Drankwalter

If you’re a true child of the internet—that seemingly endless and extremely convenient recipe depository—you’ve probably never owned a recipe box, and might not fully fathom the hallowed place these boxes once held in the kitchen.

I’ve always loved them, but now that they’ve become a bit of a cultural relic, I am obsessed with them.

I often imagine, with sweaty palms, the last true recipe box in the entire universe being obliviously tossed into an intergalactic space dumpster in the year 2060, the world forever losing the recipes for Tea Time Tassies and poke cakes and hot crab dip. I can’t bear the death of a culture that once called food suspended in Jell-O and molded in the shape of heart (or a wreath or a star) a “salad.”

Consequently, the way some houseguests might sneak a look into your medicine cabinet, I will always find a way to go through your recipe box, if you still have one (the $30 beauty you received on your birthday but never used doesn’t count). I suppose it’s my completely inappropriate way of getting to know you better, without your permission. Or a way to connect with you forever, a way to never ever let you go.

I have issues. I also believe my snooping has anthropological value; I’m just trying to figure out what that is.


Not long ago, I visited my 80-something Aunt Mariah on a weekend that happened to coincide with the birthday of my late Uncle John, a bighearted, extremely well-loved man who had passed away not even a year earlier. They lived together in Galax, my small hometown in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, for over 60 years. People still stop me on the street when I go downtown to tell me how much they feel his loss.

“He was just so much fun,” Mariah said, after his funeral. “I was a farm girl, and he showed me the world.”

John and Mariah fed and cared for me as a kid. (I was over at their house a lot, to play with my cousins Toni, Susan and Kathy.) Aunt Mariah grew up on 1000-acre Tidewater, Virginia, plantation. Her father died when she was a young child, during the depression, leaving her mother to operate the farm with few resources; but they created a home where family pulled together.

I, on the other hand, grew up in a dysfunctional family where, rather than becoming a stronger unit during tough times, we triangulated and froze one another out. To me, Aunt Mariah always felt like the calm center of a low-grade storm, and she was the perfect hostess. Our home was off-kilter and guarded—we rarely had guests—and hers was open and welcoming. The scent of her crispy brown, tender sweet rolls—which I’ve been making for about ten years now—takes me back to every family event I’ve attended at her home. I recall it with almost perfect clarity because it became a signal to me that said: You belong to this family.

Seven years ago, when my older brother Oliver killed himself, I had a complete nervous breakdown. I was unable to deal with the tragic, tangled, messy loss, and the life I had built for myself in Chicago, where I’d been a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, fell apart. My untidy grief was too much for my fiancé to handle; we broke up just three weeks after my brother’s funeral, and he asked me to immediately leave the apartment we’d shared with his daughter for the past two years. As a result of this pain, I ended up in the hospital, and when I got out, I had almost nothing.

It would be a long long time before I could admit how many mistakes I’d made, and even longer before I could forgive myself for all of them. My self-respect had disappeared along with my life savings. But long before I figured these things out, John and Mariah helped me put my life back together, not just by giving me a soft place to land, but by reminding me what a real home and a truly loving family looked like. I dedicated my memoir, The Comfort Food Diaries, to both of them.


Before I left Aunt Mariah’s house that weekend, we had a lunch of leftover country ham and fruit salad in the sunny, olive-green breakfast room. I’d eaten at that old captain’s table so many times since I was born. My nostalgia for the safe and welcoming place she had created with my Uncle John seemed precarious because we’d just come back from a big Easter celebration at her family’s farm. It had been the first time she’d been to this event without her husband and her sister, Glynn, who’d also passed away in the last year. All the holiday celebrations, the wedding showers, the sleepovers, the after school snacks, and even the grown-up parties my cousins and I were excluded from but spied on from the basement rec rooms of our childhood, came rushing back to me.

“Aunt Mariah,” I said, over the last of our iced tea, “Would you mind if I took a look at your recipe boxes?” I remembered how they used to crowd her kitchen counters and rest on top of her fridge.

“Of course not,” she said, in her Tidewater drawl. “Help yourself.”

Oh, all the "salads" you hide! Photo by Emily Nunn

Aunt Mariah has five recipe boxes: a very long wooden one embossed with the word “Recipes,” a tin one painted with flowers that had belonged to my grandmother, two small wooden ones, and a clear acrylic box that seemed out of place for its mod style. “That was the one I used to keep at the beach house,” she said. It contained duplicate recipes of the home-based boxes, all of which were filed in a system that I found largely inscrutable. “Just put them back when you’re through,” she told me before disappearing through the back screen door to weed her periwinkle and tend to her giant herb garden.

I fell down the recipe-box rabbit hole, whizzing past cards both ancient and modern from the kitchens of many women—living and dead, strangers and friends, close kinfolk, relatives who were still alive but had chosen to disappear from my life forever, like a vapor rising from hot soup. Some of these recipes were shared on plain index cards now yellowed at the edges, others were inscribed on fancy cards decorated with small illustrations of old-timey teapots, pies and flowers, or overflowing salad bowls and inscribed with swirly script: “From the Kitchen of” and “Serves” and “Oven Temp,” each followed by a blank space for the recipe’s author to fill in.

I happily reentered a world crowded with old-fashioned cobblers, not to mention multiple versions of both baba au rhum and English trifle. I found gelatin salads (of course); a cream-cheese and marshmallow dressing for composed fruit salads; Nancy Reagan’s brownies; a billion different rum cakes, sour cream pound cakes and refrigerator rolls; numerous Texas sheet cakes; a couple of baked custards; a hot milk cake; an extremely complicated recipe for the exquisite Moravian sugar cake (which no one ever makes, because we’ve been buying it at Dewey’s Bakery in Winston Salem since I was a small kid). I also found the Mississippi State College’s Red Velvet Cake, not to mention Coca-Cola cake, a distinctly southern thing.

And in addition to the litany of expected entrees (chicken, beef stews, meatloaf, and the fancier veal and beef tenderloin dishes), there were whole sections dedicated to grits, breads and biscuits, casseroles in general, potato concoctions, and soups, my favorite of which is Aunt Mariah’s famous beef and barley. My grandmother’s blender mayonnaise, which I make all the time, was somehow in the desserts. There was a card for making snow cream, and a card for DIY stain remover.

What I did not find in any of the five boxes was a single recipe for dishes with green peas. Uncle John famously hated them and would leave them in a little green pile at the side of the plate, without complaint. This is the way recipe boxes are—as true and unique as the family they belong to. Some of this food was so achingly familiar it made me believe, if only for a moment, that Uncle John was sitting down in the sunny breakfast room and doing a newspaper crossword puzzle while waiting for supper to be ready. And the ghost-like presence of my own estranged family seemed to be there, too, if only for the food.

Recipe boxes are as unique as the family they belong to.

Here was my cousin Susan’s exquisite peanut butter and chocolate sheet cake, jotted down in her familiar small print. I would take this cake over any other in the universe: dark chocolate cake layered with slightly salty peanut butter filling and a thin layer of chocolate icing. In the salads section, I came across the go-to dressings of both Susan and my cousin Toni, as well as one from a sister of mine who stopped speaking to me five years ago, without ever telling me why. (It has light mayo in it, which I would never consider eating; maybe that explains something.) There was no salad dressing at all from our other sister, whom she had stopped speaking to over 10 years earlier.

Photo by Emily Nunn

Sometimes, as I am sure she has noticed without ever correcting me, I treat Aunt Mariah as if she were my mother. But the recipe box reminded me that my own mother was a great and inventive cook, before she had drifted away from my hometown in the years after my parents’ divorce, after I’d left for college. Her signature cards, decorated with a cute little illustration of a 19th century stove, showed up more than a few times. I took a photo of her Spaghetti Superb, one of my brother Oliver’s favorites, a classic 1970s hamburger and pasta casserole that you mix together, pile with cheese, and bake. Mom would make it whenever she had to contribute to a potluck or feed a crowd. My four brothers and sisters and I absolutely loved it, too, and would pile our plates with seconds, sitting around our giant pink formica breakfast table where we ate most of our meals. I may make it one day.

But what, truly, was I looking for here? A secret portal into a time when ladies made cakes every week, and said things like “I’ll bring you the recipe for my Lemon Sponge Cups when I see you at bridge on Thursday”? In this golden culinary past, people remained friends forever, couples never divorced, families never fell apart. They stayed together, struggling and triumphant, until the very end.

In this golden culinary past, people remained friends forever, couples never divorced, families never fell apart.

When I stumbled upon the recipe for Liz Sohmer’s Cheese Treats—an hors d’oeuvre that requires icing crustless squares of bread with a spicy mixture of butter and cheese, then stacking them like finger sandwiches before popping them in a hot oven to melt and brown—I found my answer. I wanted a true connection to my dysfunctional family, because, to quote the Irish playwright Hugh Leonard, “love turned upside down is still love for all that." When I was 12, I helped my mother prepare these treats for the very archetypal 1970s cocktail party my parents gave at our house. (They even had a loud rock band, which performed in the playroom upstairs, from a balcony that overlooked the party and patio and firepit below.) I waited for them to come out of the oven, then sneaked one or two before she allowed me to pass them around to all the slightly tipsy guests. My mother was dressed in her hot pink and orange psychedelic party kaftan and dangly earrings, and everyone else wore those crazy saturated orange and pink and lavender cocktail dresses and plaid pants that marked the era. My two brothers Oliver and Michael wore fat ties to signify that they were parking cars for the guests, down in the field that fronted the yard of our mod stone and glass Brady Bunch house. All of this was before she left town, of course, before the divorce.

That recipe reminded me of how much love there had once been in my own family, and I wanted it to be the key to some kind of holy culinary redemption that would give my family and my past back to me in a more forgiving way.

Was I expecting too much from these recipe boxes?


As Aunt Mariah came in from her herb garden and passed through the breakfast room, I held up the card for a green-chile Mexican dip that looked delicious, and she sat down.

“Men love that dip,” Aunt Mariah said, and noted that she’d served it at a party for a high school friend of mine after I’d left the South for New York. When she noticed I’d also set aside the card for a fantastic raspberry vinaigrette-dressed salad, she said: “I would always serve that at Golf Group. Everyone liked it so much I started serving it at Soup Night.”

Wait: what? Golf Group? Soup Night?

Mariah went into the kitchen and brought out a very fat notebook held closed with giant rubber bands which contained the plans for all the parties and get-togethers and dinners and showers at which these cocktaily recipes I’d never tasted were featured. This notebook was a record of over thirty years of entertaining. When I opened the pages, invitations to pig pickings, some shaped like little pigs, fell out, along with bills for cleaning tablecloths and some stray receipts, and a document of each party’s menu, the guest list, the names of the co-hosts, if any, and their various responsibilities. It was full of summer get-togethers for family and friends, winter buffets, church-committee treats, every kind of entertaining imaginable.

Photo by Emily Nunn

“Ginger says this notebook should be in the Smithsonian,” she replied, referring to a family friend. She then produced a second notebook, the most recent one, which had the plans for a future party she was giving for my friend Jayne, who is getting married.

“It looks like you gave every single one of my friends a shower,” I said.

“I didn’t really give showers,” she replied. “I give coffees: Punch, cookies, tea sandwiches.” She paused. “We put a lot of rum in that coffee punch.”

I desperately wanted a recipe that would help me hang onto some of that ethos, to redeem myself for the teas I’d missed, the friends I hadn’t kept in touch with, and never being able to thank my Aunt Mariah for all the times she’d welcomed me and cooked for me without giving it a second thought.

And then, like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, it occurred to me that I’d had the recipe I’d been searching for all along: Aunt Mariah’s rolls, the ones I knew by heart.

My Aunt had spent a lifetime with her husband, welcoming family and friends and often strangers into her home, long after I’d grown up and moved away. Her recipe boxes and her notebook documented that. While I didn’t find my culinary holy redemption, a key to my lost family, in them, I found a lesson: Be like Aunt Mariah. Keep the people who love you close, cook for them, and most of all, never let them—or their recipes—go.


Another Aunt Mariah-Style, Serves-a-Crowd Recipe

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36 Comments

Diane B. August 16, 2018
Our family recipe boxes are links to our childhood. These recipe bring back so many memories. This summer I have taken the time to learn some of my hisband’s family recipes from the family members themselves. It’s been an experience hearing the stories to which the recipes are connected. Thank you for an incredible article!
 
Sue N. August 15, 2018
I really enjoy the articles but I am really irritated by the ads. I get part way down the article and you flip me back to the top to see new ad. Then I scroll, you flip me back, I scroll you flip.....Get the picture. So just before I send this, you flipped me back to the top. Argh....
 
Katherine July 24, 2018
Oh, gosh, this brings back so much to me as well. You really plucked my heart strings as you meandered through your family's culinary history (which really was your family history). It seems to me that way as well - the dishes and meals really are the story of holidays and birthdays and friendships. The dishes pluck our heart strings as they remind us of the people who have drifted in and out of our lives. We member how much we received from all who have touched our lives and we grieve for what we have let go and and those who have left us. Food certainly holds a powerful place in our hearts. Thanks for for a beautiful article.
 
Maureen July 15, 2018
Beautiful article that brought tears to my eyes amid memories of my own Southern family (I was born in Norfolk). Thank you...I will try this recipe!
 
Karen L. July 15, 2018
Beautiful everything. I loved reading your piece. Can't wait to try your rolls but I already feel I've had a feast. Best to you!