I gave Suzanne an early birthday present on Saturday, mostly because I’d been working on it for a while and I really wanted to finish it, but I’d hit the point where I just couldn’t complete it without her help. Decisions needed to be made. Words needed to be guessed at. Mystifying blanks needed to be filled in!
I’d stolen her box of recipes — the ones she’s been collecting for literal decades — and turned them into a book. Doesn’t that sound simple? It sounded simple to me before I started: take the recipes, type them, generate book, ta-da! Fun birthday present, check.
I did not consider three challenges before I began: 1) reading other people’s handwriting; 2) twenty-year-old, well-loved recipes suffering from inevitable decay (water stains, fading, etc.); and 3) how often recipes that we write for ourselves lack details.
Actually, there were some other challenges, too. Like, should I include recipes that I’d call heritage recipes? Such as chicken-fried steak with cream gravy or bone-in ham with maple glaze? Foods that she’s somewhat unlikely to ever want to cook again? The answer to that one was a pretty easy yes. Maybe she won’t want to make chicken-fried steak again, but any recipe with the line, “Brown the flour — it won’t take but maybe a minute —” deserves its place in history.
What about duplicate recipes? Or rather, almost duplicate recipes. Two different lasagnas, so is one better than the other? Two different pumpkin pies, one titled “Now This Is Pumpkin Pie!” I’m guessing that one is preferable to the generic “Pumpkin Pie” recipe, but the ingredient list was, alas, illegible to me. I’m hoping Suzanne can decipher it, because obviously that’s the one to try. My personal favorite duplicate was Shanghai Chicken Wings, two versions, one labeled “Jason’s Variation.” Should I include both? (Answer: so far, yes, but when we make the Shanghai Chicken Wings, we’re going with Jason’s variation.)
Then there were the inevitable spelling errors and copying mistakes. Did I want to copy the recipes exactly as they were written on the cards or did I want to fix things that seemed like they might need fixing? The recipe for “Don Hoffman’s Mom’s Apple Pie” was copied from a sticky note, and the note was still on the back of the index card, so I knew the sugar had been omitted on the index card — was that intentional or accidental? Or “spagetti” used on recipes for spaghetti carbonara, spaghetti with meatballs, spaghetti alla puttanesca, and Little Joe’s spaghetti, so internally consistent, but being auto-corrected every single time I tried to type the word. Auto-corrected over and over again until I finally gave up and went with “spaghetti.” I think we’re going to fix that one before we send it to get printed, though. Spagetti might not be auto-corrects’ official spelling, but it is definitely Suzanne’s spelling, and this is Suzanne’s cookbook.
Then there were the revisions. One cookie recipe started out with a temp of 375. It was crossed out and 350 was written in next to it. That was then crossed out and 325 was written next to it. Obviously, 325 was the right temperature. But the changes were part of the story of the recipe. Did I want to include them? If so, how? Just a simple strike-through or with a note?
Before I started, I figured I’d format it like a cookbook — maybe two columns, with the ingredients on one side, the instructions on the other. Except that would have meant dramatically revising some recipes. Like this card, which just wasn’t going to work in that format:
Warm Tomato Vinaigrette: 1 can crushed tomatoes heated in saucepan; whisk in 4 tbsp red wine vinegar and 1 tsp parsley, salt & pepper. Serve over hot pasta.
Mushrooms, brandy & cream sauce: Sauté chopped mushrooms with shallot or green onion; add 1/8 cup of brandy and flame! Add 1 cup cream, toss with pasta.
Mushroom wine sauce: sauté 1/4 cup minced onion, 1 clove garlic with mushrooms. Add 1/4 cup white wine and boil; add 1 cup crushed tomatoes; salt and pepper.
Sausage and mushroom sauce; sauté sausage, onion, garlic, and mushrooms; add 1 cup of white wine and reduce until almost dry. Add 2 cups of tomato sauce, salt and pepper.
Finally, there was the question of organization. When I started, I intended to put the recipes in the exact order in which they were placed in the gray box. Once I’d typed eighty recipes or so, though, I knew I couldn’t bring myself to do that. I’m guessing that at some point, the box spilled, and recipes got put back in only rough order. Even though it doesn’t make any difference at all in an ebook — being able to search is sorta the point, after all — the oatmeal cookie recipe just doesn’t belong between clam chowder and meatloaf.
Oh, and then one final question: were there dishes of mine that Suzanne might like to add to her collection? My okonomiyaki (GF cabbage pancakes) are a regular in the dinner rotation, as are jerk shrimp tacos and baked chicken thighs. Obviously, she doesn’t need to care about how to cook those things as long as I’m around, but eventually I’ll be traveling again. Okonomiyaki, in particular, is a perfect fast & easy, come-home-tired, throw-it-together-quick kinda meal, but the details — a sprinkle of sesame seeds, some green onion if you’ve got it — are easy to forget. I don’t tend to have recipes written down, because I mostly just wing it in the kitchen. Also the things I cook are usually constantly evolving as I think of ways to improve them. (I’m a kaizen kinda cook, I think, if such a thing exists). But if there was anything she wanted to be able to make for herself, I’d happily write them down for her, of course.
At any rate, her birthday present has now turned into work for her, which is not really the way birthday presents are supposed to go. But eventually all those questions will get resolved, I’ll polish it up, send it to be printed (probably via B&N’s personal printing option) and it will be really cool. In the meantime, putting it together and making a cover for it was excellent fun.
In other Mighty Small Farm news, Gina — who is #notmycat — caught a baby rat today. I’m torn between finding this good news — Go, Gina, go! — and bad news — ICK! But at least Suzanne managed to stop her from bringing it inside my tiny house. Small blessings, for which I am grateful.