My Mother’s Recipe Box

Family heirlooms comes in all sorts of shapes and sizes. My all-time favorite came in small, wooden box, faded red in color and hand-painted with quaint Pennsylvania Dutch flowers.  Its contents?  My mother’s recipe collection.

Food in my family was always serious business.  But just imagine my surprise when I recently opened the box and pulled out the first hand-written index card.  It read:

“In case of my death, this recipe box which she gave me (meaning yours truly!) and all the recipe inside will be given to Marsha Palanci-Lauber with the stipulation that any recipes that her sister Sharon Palanci-Boss wishes will be copied for her.” That’s keeping all the culinary jewels in the family!

Last Saturday, in a moment of nostalgia, I decided to dive deeply into the entire contents of my mother Helen’s recipe box. Pausing for a moment, I thought about the laborious nature of her collecting each recipe—all by hand.  In contrast, today all we need to do is search things on line and gather our favorites using special software or food apps such as Paprika.

Reading through my mother’s neatly categorized cards was like perusing a book on recent American food history.  Except for family recipes handed down from multiple generations, most of what Helen collected was from the 1950’s.  This post-WWII era was one which welcomed a new age of prosperity in America after a period of government rations and lean pantries. GIs returning from tours in Europe and the Pacific introduced their wives to new, exotic flavors. American food companies rushed to “Americanize” those dishes soldiers had experienced abroad: lasagna, pizza, egg foo yung and barbecued meats covered in Polynesian sauces.

This was also a time when manufacturers devised all sorts of new convenient food items as well as cooking gadgets to reduced homemakers’ (as they were called back then) time in the kitchen. These trends were reflected in my mother’s choice of which recipes she saved, which ingredients she used and how she cooked them. 

Back then, recipes were mostly culled from friends and family who liked to cook and show off their culinary prowess. But my mother also clipped ideas from local newspapers, women’s magazines as well as the back of pre-packaged goods, such as Kraft or Campbell’s soup. Some of the standout recipes which fascinated and/or amused me included: 

·         Bavarian Party Dip: Braunschweiger mixed with sautéed onions, cream cheese and black pepper.

·         Crunchy Chicken Casserole: Cubed chicken combined with canned Stokely’s “finest sweet peas,” sliced celery, mayonnaise, grated onions, and lemon juice topped with grated, pasteurized, processed American cheese (a food oxymoron) and crushed potato chips.

·         Italian Gnocchi de Patate made with Idaho mashed potato granules.

·         Raspberry Poke Cake: A Duncan Heinz mix white cake made poked with a fork, then filled with raspberry Jello and finally, topped with Dream Whip.

I was struck by some of the frequently used ingredients such as canned soups, oleo, canned grated Parmesan cheese, dried onions and garlic powder, boxed puddings and Miracle Whip. Growing up, I thought Miracle Whip was just another brand of mayonnaise in a glass jar.  I had to wait until after college to taste the real thing.

When my mother’s recipes called for fruits and vegetables as ingredients, they were mostly canned or frozen.  These ingredients reflected what was available at the time. When Helen made her green bean and mushroom casserole, or her corn pudding, or her Key Lime pie, the availability of new convenience foods, rather than nutrition, was her motivator. 

Today, we might scoff as such an idea.  Instead, “fresh, fresh, fresh” has become our mantra.  Those of us who claim to be serious “foodies”—a term which didn’t even exist back in the 50’s—opt for seasonally-available produce at CSAs, local farmers’ markets, or high-end specialty food stores. We make our own broth and seek out artisanal producers of cheese, bread and charcuterie.  We like to think our way, usually organic, is best.

To answer the question of fresh versus canned and frozen, I asked my dear friend and food scientist, Diane McComber her opinion.  “While many today tout the benefits of fresh food, how fresh is it really when you buy at the supermarket?  Frozen food is processed at the peak of freshness.  Vitamin C may be lost in the heat of canning, but other vitamins, minerals and fiber remain.  In fact, vitamin A from cooked tomatoes is more available to the body than from fresh tomatoes.”

Ironically, Spain and Portugal have breathed life back into their caning industry.   Today, they have a highly sophisticated methods for conserving specialty foods items.  Anthony Bourdain (RIP) did a “No Reservations” TV segment several years ago featuring Sol e Pesca, a trendy restaurant in Lisbon. Here, guests can sample hundreds of different varieties of conservas, all delicious. So, I guess the debate has come full circle?

But, I digress. My mother’s recipe box was filled with clipped articles carefully pasted onto index cards. She was partial to what Julia Child had to say in her popular Parade column.    One of my favorites was Julia’s column “Beans & the Toots Effect.” In it she recommends that you soak dried beans in three times their volume of water— “or ten times, says the scientists, if you are feeding a serious tooter.” 

Helen also followed Heloise, in her “Hints from Heloise” weekly newspaper column.  One of her recipes in particular, caught my attention: the one for exterminating roaches. Don’t laugh.  Heloise guaranteed it worked.  Since many of us New Yorkers face the problem, I am sharing this with you. Pay attention now.

“In a large bowl, mix 16 ounces of powdered boric acid, one cup flour, one quarter cup sugar, one small chopped onion, and one-half cup shortening.  Add water (a small amount at a time) to form a soft dough.  Shape into small balls and place them throughout the house in places normally inhabited by roaches, but KEEP THEM OUT OF THE REACH OF CHILDREN AND PETS. —Hugs, Heloise”

Please don’t think that I am making fun of what I discovered in my mother’s recipe box. Not in the least.  It also included some delicious recipes from my grandmothers and aunts—all talented home cooks— for Italian pasta sauce, biscuits, meat loaf, scalloped potatoes and more. These index cards have been ear-marked to try later. The best of what I discovered, however, and I had to make immediately was the family’s “secret” recipe for Applesauce cake.  You can find it in this week’s “Dessert” section.  Don’t miss it. It’s a keeper.

If you would like to share any special, easy-to-make favorites from your mother’s recipe collection we would be delighted to include you as one of our guest contributors.   Kindly contact me at to discuss.