Friday, April 20, 2012

Time Capsule Kick Off

The three-ring binder has seen better days. Its waxy, peach-colored cover and spine are split, and the cardboard innards spill out in somewhat floppy, water-stained fashion. It’s had a rough life – well-loved from the seventh grade on. (Peach was something of an obsession with me in 1987 – I also vividly recall peach-colored Converse high-tops, and a peach short-sleeved sweater that I wore under my – wait for it – Seattle Blues denim overalls.)

So, although it survived the rigors of middle school, the binder has a new profession now – just like me. Pressed into service in what I best can determine was the early 1990s and then forgotten in my mother’s garage for the next 20 years (god, has it really be 20 years?) it houses a treasure trove of late-70s to late-80s recipe cards, home ec handouts and grocery store tips that I collected and compiled between the ages of about eight and 15.  Its centerpiece is a homemade cookbook – a labor of love between me and my brother, featuring a cover decorated with magazine picture cut-outs of tomatoes, raw onions, a can of Chef Boyardee Beefaroni, and a very suspicious looking stir-fry concoction, ripe with – are those hotdogs? (Delicious!) Inside a are an inspired collection of beverages, salad dressings, main dishes and desserts – lots of desserts.

Let’s be clear – Julie & Julia this a'int. A quick glance at the titles alone proves that point: "Candle Salad," "Beef Roll-Ups." There seemed to be a heavy reliance on gelatin and cakes made with mayonnaise. These recipes are not exactly nostalgic, because, as far as I can remember – aside from the handouts from my middle- and high-school home ec – I never made any of them. But, like a taste memory, they take me back to the large kitchen of my childhood as surely as if they had been served on the dinner table. Who was this kid who carefully cut out recipes for Quick Chicken Chasseur (what?), Guacamole Ring (there’s that gelatin again), and a “Pumkin” Pie made with Bisquick? What will I learn about myself making these creations my childhood self so wanted to try?

The pedigree of several recipes is unknown – they're newspaper clippings, sure – and the newspaper of my childhood was The Herald from Everett, WA.  But their editors likely reprinted several recipes in their weekly food column, and the origins didn’t always make it past my safety scissors. Other recipes are simply torn from magazines (a practice I continue today), or are typewritten hand-me-downs. The best finds are mimeographed – punchy purple dye gone the way of spilled grape Kool-Aid. I’ve given credit where credit is due, of course, but the origins of several of my experiments are lost to the mists of time.

But wherever they came from, they are my selections – the kitchen fantasies of my childhood self – a latch-key kid whose single-mom worked three jobs to put food on the table and pressed her kids into cooking out of a belief in self-sufficiency and also a necessity. When it was my turn, Mom often came home to a Jenny-O Turkey Roast and a lemon meringue pie.

And that about sums up my kitchen education – and evolution. The good folks at Jenny-O still make their Roast – which creates its own gravy in a disposable aluminum pan and contains so much sodium it makes my tongue swell just to think of it.  Don’t laugh – I also remember it being succulent and tender and delicious. But I spent a lot of my childhood much hungrier than I am now, and I haven’t eaten a Jenny-O Turkey Roast since 1988.

I like to think the lemon meringue pie, though, proves that I had a taste for something other than convenience food, and the wherewithal to make it. These days, I consider myself an above-average cook, adventurous and inventive. But I’m not snobby. I can devour an entire pan of green-bean casserole like nobody’s business.
My culinary time capsule is the best kind of memento. Turning the crispy newspaper, I am struck by what passed for sophistication in my 8-year-old mind. Did I really think a concoction of green peppers, margarine and two cans of Beefaroni sounded tasty? Is there any way my 37-year-old self might still agree?

Well, why not give it a shot? To see if the tastes and times of my youth still thrill me as they once did. One way or another, I made it through a childhood that – like most of them – had its share of horrors and delights. Does the influence of everything good and bad about growing up in the 1980s influence me still? That eight-year-old with her Jenny-O Turkey Roast – she’s still here, right?

At its best, I hope the Culinary Time Capsule provides that rarest of American Dreams – the second chance. Because what else is a time capsule, of any kind, but a hope for the future – a desire to become someone other than you are today. It may no longer be 1985, but maybe, for a meal or two, it can taste like it.

So come along as I travel back to my childhood in the 1980s. I’m sure there will be more than a few laughs, and more than a few dining disasters. But I’m hopeful that, no matter which decade you came of age, you'll find some recipes that have stood the test of time. And in the process, maybe I’ll come closer to figuring the rest of it out, too – memory and childhood, the strange and beautiful lens of nostalgia, and the way food has always done more than feed my hunger.


  1. I love this concept! So far, it's been a disappointment for me to relive my own childhood food fantasies. Because my mom stayed at home and cooked three square meals a day, what I longed for most was processed foods - those items marketed to the busy working moms with a bit of disposable income. TV dinners, canned ravioli, and Kraft Mac N' Cheese were three things I tried recently and found tasted pretty disgusting. Especially the canned ravioli. I so longed for Chef-Boy-Ardee when I was growing up!

    I really look forward to reading about your experiments...I think cooking will make a huge difference. Even if it doesn't, the best things are the memories it brings back! Good luck and thanks for sharing!

  2. I just read your letter to the editor in Family Circle and came straight to your blog! I can’t wait to go through and see everything you’ve done. What a fun project!

    1. Great to hear! Welcome to the fun -- I hope you'll laugh (and cook) along with me!

    2. Me Too!!! I read the letter as well. It is refreshing to find someone interested in thinking outside the box in terms of delving into the creative side we all have to some degree, some more than others. I am blessed to own my grandmothers tattered cookbooks and my mothers typed little black book of recipies. Sadly her larger binder that looked alot like yours had to go to the trash because it became so deteriorated. Although it is nice to read about new ideas in food, somehow the old stand-bys are the recipies we return to time and time again. I am a sentimentalist as well and have found that sharing the time honored recipies with my son while he was young has created lasting memories that hopefully he will want to share with grandchildren (if that day arrives!). I am a reader of Family Circle for over 35 years. What a valuable magazine.

  3. Count me in too - also via Family Circle. I have not one but SEVEN binders full of recipes - beginning in 1963 when I was married, and discontinued in the mid-nineties when I began to go digital. We moved a lot in those early years, so there are clippings from the St Louis Post-Dispatch, Rochester Times-Union, Hartford Courant, and whatever paper they had in South Bend, Indiana. In NJ since 1974 it's mostly been the NYT, Gourmet, etc.

  4. Welcome! I wonder if you'll discover regional differences as you go through your clippings -- or if your tastes were consistent despite your location. Keep us posted!

  5. I love it! I too found you through Family Circle and think it's inspirational. I look forward to seeing if we have recipes in common.

  6. Hi Dotty! It's been fun to hear from people who remember various dishes and/or have their own twist on the recipes. Hope to hear from you!