Recipe box

“One of the kids called, ‘Look it!’ and waved a gadget, conked the recipe box and sent it flying. We stuck recipes back, any which way.

Bellevue, Washington 1991. I stir things in a clay bowl with a wooden spoon — ferry schedule, hair bands, crayons, swim card, flea collar. Not there. I’m looking for clues.

I’ve got the blahs.

We’ve moved from a cabin near Mount St. Helens to a suburban ranch house near Seattle, and I’m lost. I miss family, friends, mountains. I slide a cedar recipe box toward me. It’s a jumble. As we unpacked stored goods, one of the kids called, “Look it!” and waved a gadget, konked the recipe box and sent it flying. We stuck recipes back, any which way.

Sitting slumped on a long-legged stool, I sigh and dump the recipes on the counter. I sort the dividers, Appetizers to Vegetables, and stand them in the box. I don’t feel like doing anything, but I’ll try to get one job done. (Too much in life is never-ending.)

“Summer Picnic Vanilla.” I cringe. Last time we made ice cream, it came out slushy. And salty! We can’t even make ice cream any more.

“Swedish Pancakes.” Tad Davidson’s treat. (All names in this column are pseudonyms, except for my husband’s and my mother’s.) Amoeba-like. Rubbery on purpose. Heavenly with lingonberries… We laughed with the Davidsons. Did we laugh more in college?

Menu cards, rubber-banded. When we lived in Berkeley, before we had kids, I recorded foods I fixed for guests. “Breakfast for John and Rika: Cinnamon rolls, strawberries with confectioners’ sugar, link sausages, poached eggs on trimmed toast, coffee.” “Wedding shower for Anne Marie: Chicken curry, three chutneys, crumbled crisp bacon, minced hard-cooked eggs, sliced bananas, currant rice, green salad, white wine, strawberry shortcake.” I did all of that?

“Mikki’s Brownies.” In Mrs. Burke’s big house, under trees in student-Princeton, Jim and Mikki Pierson had the attic, Burt and I, two rooms on floor three. Seminary husbands, teacher wives. Mikki baked something chocolate every day. If she got home first, a drift of brownies met me in the yard. We loved living there. But Mrs. Burke wouldn’t renew our lease! She inspected our trash cans and said Burt and I had the “wrong amount of trash.” She suspected us of having friends live with us. No! We simply had friends in for supper — often. I actually used these recipes.

(The renter she should have suspected was our neighbor down the hall, Miss Tryon, the tall, righteous bachelorette librarian who snuck her diminutive lover out before sunrise, she peeking first through her door to see if the coast was clear, somehow missing me peeking back, he scuttling down the stairs, clutching his briefcase as if it had powers to render him invisible.)

“Cheese Fondue.” The Kellers’ flat, four flights up, was so tiny we had to close one door and climb over a bench to get to the table, smack against the window: San Francisco lit up. Wine and cheeses blending, sourdough hunks on dripping sticks. Candlelight and rollicking talk. How can two couples enjoy an evening so much, then never meet again?

“Lemon Meringue Pie.” Mom’s recipe. A professional baker, she was famous for her pies. The other day, I baked three pies — two (Magnificent! High and hilly! Sugar-crusted! Prize-worthy!) apple pies and one (Spectacular! Lattice-topped! Sparkly! Photo-ready!) rhubarb/strawberry pie — and set them on trivets, expecting praise. Our youngest looked dubious. “Oh,” she said. “Are you trying to be like Grandma?” You’re right, honey. I’ll never catch up. (Rueful smile.)

(Mom baked blackberry, lemon and apple pies for the Totem Pole Restaurant and the Quai Restaurant in Vancouver, Washington. Strangers have shouted, upon learning my maiden name, “You’re Lillian’s daughter? She sure could bake a pie!”)

“Hot Lemon Pudding.” Jane Morgan from Australia and Ilsa Einarsdottir from Iceland, wives of visiting professors, became my quick friends on our second stay in Princeton. Mothers of toddlers, we shared a foreignness. I, from the casual West Coast (Frye boots), felt as alien in class-aware residential Princeton (formal teas) as Jane and Ilsa felt in the U.S. I’ve never made “Jane’s Hot Lemon Pudding.”

Nor have I made “Jane’s Rye Bread, Best Ever,” Jane’s breezy name for her own bread. With a tickle of interest, I scan the recipe for a word I know is there. “Add dissolved yeast to other liquids, then fling into 2 ½ cups rye flour and 3 ½ cups white flour…” Fling! The word is so tangy, it makes me wiggle… Hmm. Burt likes rye bread. So do I. Maybe… ?

“Almost Caesar Dressing, Berkeley, New Year’s Eve potluck, 1966.” I brought salad makings and a mock Caesar dressing that never failed. But I was intimidated by the hostess, a perky author of cookbooks, and I let her toss the salad. It turned out wrong, not the way I liked it. I tell myself now: Stay in control! Someone else lost control that night. A grad student was sitting cross-legged on the rug, squeezed among others, eating and talking in a general din, when one of those silences that can fall on a crowd fell, just as he suffered a lapse of alimentary poise. A terrific blast it was. The party froze. Nobody said a word except the offender, who said in a small voice, “Oops.”

Before long, I’m done. One recipe box, organized! I have a fresh idea. I’ll write a recipe … for getting unstuck!

I list household, family, desk, and writing projects, a time goal for each, trips to take, activities to plan, people to call. I get out the calendar, set target dates.

I call Mikki. We haven’t spoken for years, but she hears slippage in my voice. She gets me to admit the blahs. She had a “down” time, too, a while back — burnout, depression. It’s normal, she says, after anything exhausting — like moving!

She pelts me. “You taking vitamins? … Time off? Naps? Exercising? Are you talking to Burt about this? To someone?”

I say, “I’m talking to you!” and make an “Atta girl” face in the mirror above the sink. I juggle phone, pen, paper, and write an important note: “Buy rye flour.”

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