recipe card stories

Illustration: Kate Bingaman-Burt

1 of 5
Love, Loss and What We Ate

My grandmother is baking in our kitchen. I'm 8 years old and standing next to her, mesmerized as she kneads challah dough to just the right texture—not too wet, not too tough. She smells like flour and wears her thin gray hair pulled back into a neat bun, her hairpins still showing through. She painstakingly rolls out rugelach to a perfect eighth-inch thickness, then fills it with nuts and jam and pinches the dough back onto itself. She hands me the scraps to make a cookie of my own.

My grandmother cooked by feel and taste, wrote recipes down only when asked. And so the few that survive more than 30 years later—the hamantaschen she made for Purim, the blintzes and sweet noodle kugel we had on the high holidays—are precious. When I was a child, these recipes, along with dozens more my mother collected, lived in plastic cases or stuck between pages of cookbooks. I forgot about them until my mother died. But as I went through her things, I set aside every card and clipping from her and her mother, though I'm not a cook. They belonged to my family, my childhood; I knew I couldn't leave them behind. And as I leafed through the stained and worn cards, I was transported. My grandmother's matzo ball soup, its recipe card yellowed and creased, was a Friday tradition when she visited, even on sticky summer nights when I grumbled that the temperature outside was as hot as the soup. My mother's careful ballpoint script returns me to the local library, where she would studiously copy recipes from the latest issue of Gourmet: Moroccan chicken with olives, curried lamb, watercress vichyssoise.

I'll never make most of these dishes, but I don't need to. The recipes are enough. Each one tells the story of how these women fed the people they loved—and reminds me that I was among them.

—By Naomi Barr