It's hard to know what your prized possessions are until they go missing. Until quite recently, had my house caught on fire, the kitchen drawer where my recipe book lies is the last place I'd run in order to save its contents from the blaze. But now I know.
This knowledge became apparent last week, when my mother's recipe book went missing. Having flown from North Carolina to L.A., Delta couldn't find her bag on arrival. This has happened to me countless times, and at first we didn't think much of it. But the story with the bag began to get stranger: They had no idea where it was, and 14 other bags from the same flight had gone missing. Important-sounding airport officials were involved. On day three, when they authorized her to shop for replacement items, we started making an inventory of what was in the bag. ]
“I had a lot of work clothes,” my mother said, leaning against to door frame of my room. “And the cord to my laptop. And my riding helmet,” (she's a horse nut). Then all the color drained out of her face. “My recipe book.”
Once I realized what she was saying, my heart filled with dread. I couldn't really imagine my life – or the life of my family – without that book.
My mother bought the book more than 40 years ago, as a wedding gift for a friend. With its cloth cover covered in psychedelic circles, she thought she could fill its blank pages with recipes, or at least enough of them that the newlywed couple might be inspired and fill the book with their own recipes. In the end, the gift seemed too shoddy, so she kept the book for herself.
I don't have early memories of the book, of the first time I used it or saw it. Rather it seems like a constant in my life, like a fact of my existence. Its pages contain the recipes I grew up with, but also clues to who my mother was before she was my mother. The doodles and drawings of the twentysomething-year-old woman she once was. Poems written by friends. Recipes written in unfamiliar handwriting: an old boyfriend, an ex-husband. Food she once loved enough to write out a recipe for, but that I've never smelled or tasted.
Some pages are splashed with wine, the recipes illegibly washed from the page, stains of merriment and nourishment from decades past. Ever since I can remember I've searched these pages for things to eat and make, but also for clues about where I came from and who we are.
The idea that it could be gone was devastating.
I have my own recipe book now, started when I was 19. The origins of my book are somewhat shameful: It was stolen from the hands of babes. More specifically, I took a liking to my younger sister's diary, which had a silver sparkly cover. I snuck it away from her, justifying my actions by rationalizing that she hadn't written in it in months. She was ten. A year later I confessed, and bought her another book; she seemed happy enough with the exchange, but I've never quite forgiven myself. Still, my very favorite thing in the book is my sister's 3rd grade diary entries on its opening pages: “I'm staying home from my last day of Mr. Albani's class because I'm stupid ugly sick. Ba humbug!!” This was followed by my mother's recipes for chicken soup and Super Hot Fudge Sauce.
My own son, now ten, already has a recipe book of his own. It makes my heart want to explode into a zillion little pieces to think of him as a grown man with this book, his first recipes with titles like Crazy Freaking Pie Crust-O-Awesomeness!!
But, like all of us, our recipe books have a parent, a place from which they spawned, and that is my mother's book. It is the original text, the document that tells the stories of our beginnings as a family.
My mind raced. What recipes had I not copied? What parts of our food history might be lost forever? If the bag was indeed gone, how would we ask to be compensated for that loss? How could we possibly put a monetary value on culinary posterity?
And then, as I was on my way to work on Monday morning, a text came from my mom – “They found it!” – along with a photo of the book peeking out of her bag. There had been no explanation from Delta about where it had been for the last four days and, frankly, we didn't care. We were just relieved.
There's no real moral to this story (other than to put your valuables in your carry-on). But it makes me realize, once again, that for certain types of people, the food we cook and the recipes we write make up a significant part of our identities. The idea of losing that book felt like a losing a chunk of our family culture in a way nothing else would. This is what draws me back to the topic of food again and again – not the people lining up for a cronut or a cooking competition on TV.
Those things are fun, but what makes food vital to me, what makes it matter, is the stories it tells about our most intimate selves. That recipe book, more than anything else in our lives, is a record of us. It's a memoir we can eat.