The Heart-Tug of a Handwritten Recipe

Just this week I received this note from a stranger. “I grew up eating South African pumpkin fritters as a special treat — my mother made them from my late grandmother’s recipe and they have stuck in my memory. Recently leafing through an old binder of recipes, I discovered my grandmother’s recipe. But it was not the taste memory that tugged at my heart, but her handwriting that stirred something deep within.”

I knew exactly what he meant. One year ago, I found a recipe I wrote in my best penmanship for my mother as a small gift for Mother’s Day. I had not seen it since she died and the flashback of writing it connected me to her in a combustible way – at the intersection of love and loss. At that moment, I proposed an idea to Brett Rawson, a poet and co-editor of the literary arts magazine “The Seventh Wave,” who had just started a terrific website celebrating the handwritten word.

The idea crystallized into a column called “Handwritten Recipes,” which re-ignites the connection between generations of families through the exploration of food and memory – most profoundly through the power of the pen. While the relation of food to language is universal, the curve and slope of a loved one’s scrawl can recapture long-lost memories, scents, tastes and emotions at a moment’s notice.

I’ve been collecting (with some exuberance) handwritten recipes from both friends and strangers around the world, and publishing them on These stories reveal new connections between pen and people. Some recipes have been handed down for generations, and their appearance shows it: tell-tale stains, scribbled additions, scratched-out revisions, and the fascinating variation of penmanship styles. Other recipes are recently uncovered after years in dust-covered boxes in dark and distant closets. Magically, they each bring to light the silent power of the handwritten word. More nourishing than simply something to eat, these stories shorten the distance between our sense of taste and our history.

A particularly engaging story comes from Lari Robling, an independent radio producer and writer, currently producing “Voices in the Family” with Dr. Dan Gottlieb for WHYY in Philadelphia. A special cup of tea, carefully placed next to a handwritten recipe card, sets the scene to unlock the secrets to Bettymarie’s Peach Meringue. The yellowing card’s splotches hint at past mishaps, while a faded cursive “what’s cookin’,” specifies Mom as the author, calling her by name. Yet the story is not all peaches and cream. The cracked exterior of the cake becomes a metaphor for a complicated mother-daughter relationship whose sweetness and love stand the test of time.

Another story focuses on the rekindling of father-daughter memories through the unexpected discovery of a handwritten recipe for “vodka sauce.” It is testament to the emotional power that “chicken scratches” can hold. Told by Allison Radecki, a culinary tour guide, her poignant tale is as much character study as it is a love story. Allison’s neighborhood-based walks in Brownstone Brooklyn trace the history of immigration and culinary change, and her father’s hastily scribbled note on a random piece of paper acts as a time machine to past meals. Over the years, other family members have added comments and drawings to the recipe’s edges, preserving a multi-generational bond of memories.

As these essays and connections accumulate on my desk and brighten my inbox, they form an exchange of collective memory and the transmission of taste beyond flavor — my very goal in creating this column.

Writer April Lee’s vivid memory of her grandmother’s sweet potatoes encouraged her to jot the recipe down in her own handwriting, the pen as medium for evocative recollection. “I wrote the recipe exactly as she told me. It’s captured in ink on paper, a record of holidays, of seeing my grandparents’ car pull into the driveway, of a full table with family and sweet potatoes with cherries, a record of her voice, her peculiar nature. I make it from memory and for now, this recipe is preserved, put aside, ready to be offered when we are sad along with two extra pineapple slices and a cup of the juice.”

And then there’s poet Tina Barry’s pot roast. “It is a part of our history: My mother’s, my daughter’s and mine. And it will be a part of my granddaughter Vera’s, too. When Anya cooks for Vera, my mother will be with them in all the flavors on the plate. There will be a little of me, too, in the slant of my “t,” the dot that never quite caps the “i.” That’s what a recipe does, especially one that’s handwritten: it brings loved ones closer with the proof of their hand on paper, the memory of clangs and chatter, the perfume of onions cooking slowly on the stove.”

As we become so digitally dis-connected, I’ve taken on the enriching task of assembling and publishing these linkages between gastronomy and memory from a time when people actually did things by hand; when cooking symbolized something that felt like love.

The “handwritten recipes” project is a living cookbook. Yet in some ways it has already been written and waiting to be retrieved from a dusty shoebox or kitchen drawer.

Tastes of the Week

March 26 through April 2, 2012 You've heard of sour grapes? Try salty grapes! A delicious accident waiting to happen. I had given my daughter some matzoh with butter and salt and put a small bunch of ripe black seedless grapes on her plate. When she was all done and I was about to wash her plate, I popped one of a few salty grapes in my mouth. It was fantastic. Try it.

At the French Culinary Institute on Sunday, my daughter and I helped celebrity chef Bill Telepan prepare a healthy school lunch based on the initiative started by the "Wellness in the Schools" program created by Nancy Easton. We all wanted seconds. Great chili, yellow rice with peas, fresh salads with the BEST homemade french dressing recipe (must get the recipe), cut up oranges, bananas and apples. Cold skim milk. And all on a very slim budget. We had a blast. In the kitchen popped up some of the world's best chefs -- including Andre Soltner from Lutece and Cesare Cella from Salumeria Rosi, both deans of education at the school. But speaking of school lunch programs -- this just in from Sweden:  disco lunch! You listen to great music, dance a bit, grab a sandwich -- and the money goes to charity! Not only is this a great idea but it burns some calories.

Seamus Mullen has made quite a splash as the chef-du-jour at the beloved, crazy-busy restaurant Tertulia in New York's Greenwich Village. We had a fabulous, fun dinner the other night with our friend from Malaysia who oversees 250 hotels in Southeast Asia for Starwood. He is always on the prowl for great new concepts. Dinner began with splendid jamon iberico, pan con tomate (the famous fresh tomato-slathered bread from Barcelona), and a variety of remarkable tapas, including stuffed eggs "devilled" with salt cod, anchovy toasts with pork belly and poached quail egg, deliciously funky wild boar "chorizo," then on to more crisped lamb belly, pesce spada (swordfish), fabulous nuggets of fried sunchokes in a thick sumac-laced citrus yogurt sauce, and a huge paella made with a whole Amish chicken, gorgeously cooked. Soon to be had:  the best Spanish wines from the region of Galicia, brought in by über-wine importer and Spanish wine maven, Gerry Dawes. Lots of foodies for dinner that night and I had a sneak preview of Seamus' new cookbook called Hero Food, which he wrote with Dorothy Kalins (former editor of Saveur and Newsweek.)

The real surprise this week was dinner at the Beagle on Avenue A. An out-of-town friend told us about it and so off we went -- four "girls" for a Saturday night gab-fest on the lower East side. Thanks to Priscilla Martel, co-author of  On Baking: A Textbook of Baking & Pastry Fundamentals (3rd Edition), radio host and WHYY-producer Lari Robling, and Kathy Gold (no relation), founder and executive chef of In the Kitchen Cooking School we shared a remarkably conceived-and-cooked meal. Executive chef Garrett Eagleton needs to be better known and I'm sure that will happen soon. The execution of the Striped Bass with glazed cipollini onions, rock shrimp and "broth" was absolutely perfect, as was my dish of a crispy flattened half chicken served with Irish oats (!), turnips and jus. It tasted positively French and oats are a brilliant starch to play with. I'm sure this will be copied everywhere. The "jus" was voluptuous and reminiscent of the classical stocks that I long for. Also brilliant are the little "pairing boards" of small tastes paired with a tiny "cocktail."  Did I say this was brilliant? Listen to these flavor duets: Pork Belly and Rye -- salt-roasted pork belly, bay leaf yogurt, sauerkrauts and a mini ManhattanBurrata and gin -- burrata, braised celery, parsley, arbequina olive oil, and a mini Martini. Mackerel and aquavit -- pickled mackerel, creamed pickled onion, garlic, caraway cracker and a taste of Aalborg Akvavit. Desserts, other than the very special black olive marshmallow, did not quite live up to the rest of the meal. And the prices are surprisingly reasonable given the quality and generosity of the offerings. I recommend it highly. 

Tastes of the week to come:  A review of Peter Kaminsky's new book, Culinary Intelligence.