It's an unlikely object for anyone's affection--a crumbling 1943 edition of Irma S. Rombauer's "The Joy of Cooking."
The cover is a faded robin's-egg blue with cream-colored lattice work. There's an indentation circling the author's first name where someone rested a drink long ago. From the shape and size of the imprint, it must have been a cocktail glass. And from the way the liquid ate through the canvas cover, it could only have been one of my grandfather's lethal whiskey sours.
I can still see my father's face every time his in-law handed him the cherry-laden drink. Dad would return my grandfather's smile, then clutch his throat, gagging, the moment Granddaddy turned his back.
"Worst damn drink I've ever had," my father invariably would grumble during the drive home.
Some families have Bibles listing the clan's history. We have "The Joy of Cooking." Instead of recalling statistical names and dates, this opens a flood of memories, a chronicle of three generations.
And this isn't just a record of special occasions, although the book does boast the complete menus of holiday dinners when my brother and I were banished to a lopsided card table while the adults took forever to finish their jellied consomme, roast turkey and creamed vegetables. This book is brimming with slips of paper noting everyday recipes and the small events that make up a life.
The cookbook originally belonged to my grandmother, who replaced her original 1933 edition when the binding became hopelessly cracked. She shifted her own recipes and notes to the new book, so some are from the 1920s and '30s. My mother passed it on to me when I moved to New York after college.
"Gee, thanks," I mumbled when handed the tattered book. I was headed for my first job in the Big City, and my only possessions were a few career clothes and a 40-year-old cookbook. Little did I know what surprises and revelations that book would unfurl, slowly and at its own unhurried pace.
Most of the writing is in my grandmother's hand, a hasty scrawl in pencil or fountain pen. I remember her as a confused, reclusive woman; she was afflicted with what we now realize was Alzheimer's disease in the mid-1950s, before I was born.
But when she was young, she was known for her wicked wit and a mean ragtime piano played on an ancient Steinway grand. One time, long after she had forgotten who I was, I heard the clinking of an out-of-tune piano. There I found her, cigarette dangling from her mouth, pounding a rhythmic snatch of the "Maple Leaf Rag." She looked at me, winked, and said, "Hiya, kid!" before returning to her music.
That's the grandmother who scribbled in the cookbook. Through these pages I've come to know her, a vivacious hostess who always seemed to cook for a crowd. She was too busy to put every recipe she picked up from friends, from magazines and the radio into her wooden recipe file, so she would slip them into her cookbook.
She probably meant to transfer them to a proper file one day but never found the time. Every time I open the book, a new recipe appears, yellowed and faded but dotted with grease stains from the last time it was followed.
Even the endpapers of the book are crammed with recipes from friends. Mrs. Bolmer's chicken and rice, and the Ballards' rum balls are all noted.
Two of them--cranberry jelly and Addie's date pudding--were from my Aunt Addie. She was an old woman with jet-black hair and a vague camphor smell, and she always entered family gatherings with a quivering mound of tomato aspic. Before serving, she would stop at every plate and dish out the gelatinous mold, dolloping each with a generous spoonful of mayonnaise sprinkled with paprika.
I can still see my Uncle Smith (a man so old he had served as a physician in the Spanish-American War and could recall the time Jefferson Davis was a surly house guest) chewing every bit of the tomato aspic 50 times. If he lost track, he'd start over.
There is no mention of Aunt Addie's tomato aspic, and I can merely assume that my grandmother disliked it as much as I did. Only now I realize I had a kindred spirit at those meals.
Some of the recipes are on paper with commercial letterheads, such as "Ship it on the 'Frisco" and "Fleischmann's Yeast for Pep." A couple have telephone numbers with names like "OLIVE-1500." That was before touch-tone phones and anonymous tidbits. The sheer variety of business note pads is testimony to my grandfather's struggle during the Depression, a time when no job was turned down and companies folded before the ink was dry on their new letterheads.
In the margins of the recipes themselves are notations judging them "good," "so-so," and reminders to "use very good meat." She also notes how recipes could be doubled.