Finding Love Over Lasagna: My Life in Recipes

The author's personal recipe book, begun in her teens, tells the story of the family, friends and lovers who shaped her life.

by Martha McPhee
Martha McPhee's personal recipe book
The makings of the chocolate mousse that sweetened the author s six-year love affair.
Photograph: Photo: David Meredith. Food Styling: Susan Spungen. Prop Styling: Theo Vamvounakis

I bought my first recipe book during my junior year abroad in Florence: a leather-bound volume with a peacock-feather design in salmon, pink and tan, creamy blank pages and leather straps that tied it neatly closed. On the spine I had Martha’s Recipes printed in gold. I took it home to my small apartment with a view of the river Arno and called my father in Princeton. It wasn’t quite six am his time, but I wanted his recipe for chocolate mousse. His tired voice came over the static of the international connection, asking if everything was all right. Relieved to know that all I wanted was a recipe, he spilled it out from memory. “A real mousse,” he had said so many times, “has no cream.” In his version, adapted from Julia Child, the egg whites give it the light lift. He took his time explaining, “The egg yolks are beaten in a bath of warm water . . . the whites in a bath of ice water.” I scribbled it all down. My Italian boyfriend, Giulio, was arriving from Milan that night, and I wanted to make it for him. We would be together for six years. Now, some 25 years later, the book has fallen apart. The cover is lost. Pages have been torn out and stuck in any which way. Water and grease have smeared the ink and leaked through to other pages. But I still love my book. It occurred to me not so long ago, while thumbing through both my grandmothers’ recipes, that our collections are like archaeological artifacts, time capsules taking the reader to a past that can be reconstructed and relived through food.

My paternal grandmother, Mamie, reveals in her recipe book the world of Princeton University during the 1930s through the 1950s from the perspective of a faculty wife. My grandfather was the doctor for the athletics department. Mamie stayed home and cared for the children, and she cooked dishes like tuna casserole, pink junket, gelatins, cucumber aspic, reception salad and green bean supreme. She was an organized person and labeled each recipe with the name of the woman who shared it, everyone from the basketball coach’s wife (Babe Cappon) to the Swift scholar’s wife (Hazel Landa) to the president’s wife (Margaret Dodds). I can imagine Mamie as a young mother making Kentucky kernels and scotcheroos for the little boy who became my father—treats I had never heard of and will never make but which I cherish all the same.

My maternal grandmother’s recipes tell a different story, of an unfinished life project, of clippings and index cards stuck into old tins. Some recipes show the promise of order, a hope and wish for it, but also an aversion to the laborious business of transcribing. The dishes are grander than Mamie’s: chicken Cordon Bleu; crème de almond torte; flaming baked Alaska. This grandmother, Grammy as I called her, grew up impoverished in Montana. As a child, she wore paper bags around her shoes to insulate them from the snow. From reading the Saturday Evening Post, she learned about blue-blooded Bostonians and “extra-river diamonds” (touted in a Tiffany ad) and dreamed of having one of each. Eventually she got her wish. But the jumbled recipe boxes reveal a humble past: fondue bourgogne and duck à l’orange mixed with recipes for shoe polish, Civil War soup and stain removers.

First Published April 21, 2010

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