Rain courses rivers down my kitchen window pane, creating puddles here, oceans in miniature there. It’s a perfect afternoon to bake, I think, and wander to my recipe drawer hoping to find the perfect comfort food.
My recipe drawer is an implosion of paper. Reams of it reach out for my fingers as I pull the drawer open. A slip of cash register receipt catches a draft from my movements and is airborne for a moment before it lands on the floor, back facing up. I can make out a hastily scribbled, 1/4 cup flour, on it from my vantage point. Even as I reach for the slip, I know the recipe isn’t something that will tempt me because I remember writing the directions — it was during an afternoon when the only paper I could find was the receipt for a pair of shoes. That day I needed a casserole recipe — fast, but casserole isn’t my idea of comfort food on a rainy day, so I keep foraging.
I want chocolate, I think, spying the back cover of a coloring book sporting directions for pretzels and a splotch of cocoa. Chocolate is comforting. Just the smell of it, thick in the air will be sufficient. Then I remember I used all my powder and cubes on brownies last month when I’d attended a baby shower.
So much for that. I shrug and dig deeper, past index cards more organized friends than me have been kind enough to supply. Each of those has a title: Egg Roll Recipe, Cheesecake New York Style. All of them have neat directions: 3/4 cup white flour, mince well and add to the above mixture, bake for 50 minutes in a preheated 350 degree oven.
My own handwritten recipes have arrows drawn from one section to the other, abbreviations no one will understand except me. Most of mine go totally untitled so I have to scour the recipe to decipher what the end result should be — sometimes even then, I can’t figure it out.
I begin to think for the 100th time that perhaps I should spend my afternoon organizing the papers, write them down in a nice book, record the recipes on index cards so I don’t have to suffer this indignity each time I want to bake, but it is raining, after all, and the drawer really is too much of a mess to try and clean up.
So I keep foraging in.
Double-sided recipes plead for a place of their own; they get lost, they tell me, when their partner is facing up. I forget I even have the perfect baklava recipe because it’s jotted down on the bottom of a Steak Diane recipe.
I think how very much like my recipe drawer my writing is. I hear all the time about how one should outline and get the plot right before writing. I sat on dozens of character workshops where we made lists of characteristics and tried to find that one unique quality that would make them stand out. Dialogue seminars told me I needed to think about the mood of the speaker and try to deliver it through their words.
Strangely, none of that works for me; I’m not an organized writer. Despite my best intentions, I always end up taking a ‘recipe drawer’ approach. I start out with bits and pieces of known items and then with what’s left, I struggle to make sense of the rest of the lot, narrowing my gaze at the hint of the seasoning needed. I press on, trying to figure out what it all means. I piece it together. I thrill at the thought of the discovery of what could be there, written out in code only I can discern.
I forge on through the wads and stacks of papers in the drawer, and I think about how my writing style is indeed a recipe drawer approach, and I wonder in the moment if I should do better. If I should try to be more formal about it all.
My hand pulls out half of an index card written on in red ink. The awkward lettering reminds me of Christmas tags barely discernible on homemade mittens given to me years ago by my Scottish granny.
I peer closer, and immediately recognize my grandmother’s writing. B pud, the title says, and below are abbreviations for ingredients that are instantly familiar because I use similar abbreviations when I write out recipes: 1 e, 1 c sug, 1 c mg.
When my mother’s mother passed away family pressures and tensions kept me from attending her memorial. Her Scottish brogue haunts me every now and then, asking me why I couldn’t bother to say goodbye.
I don’t remember asking for the recipe I hold in my hand, but I do remember the years my family lived with Nanny. I recall sleeping with her and eating pizza in bed, learning to braid on the plaid blanket that sported a red fringe. I remember the wall hanging of Robbie Burns, the Scottish poet, and a dishtowel souvenir from Scotland with a picture of the Loch Ness monster.
Her accent was still heavy when I saw her last, weeks before her heart finally won the war. When my mother had bypass surgery ten years ago, I thought I was looking at Nanny in the hospital bed. My own heart nearly stopped then. I realize my love for character and discovery has a good solid flour base in my own history, of the characters I know and knew, and how even after they’ve gone, they speak to us. They want their secrets told or kept. I know because I have a few of my own.
I look again that the clumsy red letters, the barely-there title, and familiar abbreviations. I think about the ingredients I have in my cupboard: plenty of bread, lots of milk. I even have a handful of raisins.
It’s a rainy day, perfect for cleaning out my recipe drawer, or for baking an extravagant dessert. But I have this strange hankering for bread pudding, and maybe as it cooks and it’s cinnamon scent flavors the house, I’ll pull out my pen and paper and see where they take me.
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