Blog Post

Recipe Cards, Tactile Memory, and "Paper Communities" (Also Matzoh Balls)

A year ago, I posted a sort of thought experiment here on HASTAC, using the debate about matzoh ball soup (fluffly or dense?!*) to speculate about the function of recipes as information technology.

Well, Katie Arnold-Ratliff, on Slate’s DoubleX, is calling on us to look not just at the recipes but their material form to consider how food becomes foodways—and how ideas about food circulate.

She celebrates recipe cards because they do far more than communicate the basic facts or actions of a recipe. It is, instead, the tactile, archival, and even emotional aspects of the cards that Arnold-Ratliff prizes:

The file [of her great-grandmother’s cards] was rich with evidence of its owner, and of its frequent use: It was spattered with grease stains and marked with thumbprints, and the crabbed hand in which it was written had visibly deteriorated between the first recipe and the last. My great-grandmother was a stoic German woman; she wouldn’t have poured her heart into a diary. So this file was the nearest approximation, the most intimate thing she left behind.

For those odd and rarely-made holiday treats (and probably all the better for our health and sanity, delicious as they are), these qualities are amplified. The dishes themselves “simply must be made for Thanksgiving to be Thanksgiving, or Christmas to be Christmas.” And because the recipes haven’t been memorized, that holiday-making experience is enriched by digging into an archive of history, love, and grease—it “means hauling out the grandma-certified documents that explain how they’re made.”

The cards, Arnold-Ratliff writes, “conjure…the pie’s intangible context.”

But that intangibility is necessarily and always linked to its material history: to the script on the card, to its feathered edges, to years of taking it out of a box and propping it against a handy can, to decades of eating it. And, so, Arnold-Ratliff worries that that as we are now more likely to turn to Smitten Kitchen or Tyler Florence or a smart phone—to a mass of impersonal, digital, and/or commercial sources for recipes—we are also losing something more than heritage foods themselves. So she ends with a call to revive the card:

I like the idea of bringing the recipe card, in all its grease-smudged idiosyncratic glory, back from the brink. And I especially like the idea of my great-grandkids flipping through my own box of recipe cards after I’m gone, touching paper my fingers touched and admiring my as yet un-crabbed penmanship. And then, in all probability, they’ll wrinkle their noses at the juxtaposition of the words boiled and fudge, before hopefully making it themselves.

As someone who won’t be having children, and who is a big fan of the queer “families of choice” model, I think we might benefit from thinking even more broadly. Borrowing from, say, the resilient “paper communities” of zines, could we imagine using recipe cards—written by hand, used, and then circulated promiscuously, traded periodically perhaps—to build tactile, emotional, gustatory communities on all sorts of different scales and for different perpetuities.


*Since it’s clearly the most important question at stake in this post, I’ll let you know I come down on the fluffier-end-of-in-between, and add parsley.

co-posted on bookmobility

1 comment

Thanks for this succinct and elegant post, Derek. My copy of Mollie Katzen's cookbook, The Enchanted Broccoli Forest, is stained, torn, crusty and held together with a rubber band. I would never replace it. I think a lot about the tactility of things, and how it cannot be preserved very well in Digital Land. Maybe in the future there will be some kind of way to reproduce materiality. Or, maybe the part of our brains that responds to texture will shrivel up, and the freed cells will be used for better fingertip sensitivity and dexterity.

In the meantime, we should preserve the old recipe cards and continue to use them. I don't have much use for things that need to be preserved behind glass or in acid-free boxes. So I love your idea of trading recipe cards. Related to that, as a teacher, I like to make my students read actual books. Sometimes they write essays and revise them by hand. They draw pictures of things they're attempting to describe in words. Keeping the material in front of us is important, as you say. We talk about scale in the DH, and it's essential to keep in mind scale from an analog perspective. An old map on the computer screen is one thing, but it's important to know how big is the real version, what it feels like and smells like.

As for matzoh ball soup, I (a WASP, but I consulted with my husband who is Jewish)  think the the matzoh balls should be fluffy but dense--floating in the soup but dense enough to hold their shape when you cut them with a spoon.