What does your recipe journal look like? Does it smell like chocolate? Is it painted with expressionist tomato sauce splatters? Does it force you to remember a pasta dish that turned a romantic dinner into a comedy, does it play a movie of a time when you went to a lot of potlucks and always brought the tabouleh salad? Where did that recipe go, and who originally wrote it?
Recipes tell stories, bleed history, channel memory.
Janet Theophano, author of Eat My Words, a fascinating social history of women’s cookbooks writes about finding what she thought was an old, 19th century journal in an antique shop. Upon closer inspection, she realized it was a recipe book, full of such varied lore as how to make Parker House Rolls or the best way to flush a colon. Poems, newspaper clippings, devotional texts – and, of course, recipes – filled its pages. But the most astonishing discovery, for Theophano, was that the author had not written her name anywhere on the document. Thus began her obsession with women’s recipe books, which she sees as an overlooked element of women’s writing, much of it anonymous – how many unattributed recipes do you have in your recipe journal? Theophano began to read between the lines, appreciating the different functions of these recipe journals, which also worked to give women a political voice, to help them become literate, or to narrativize their lives. She writes: “these cookbooks tell us how to make beauty and meaning in the midst of the mundane.”
This week, while working on my food memoir, I wrote to a cafe-owner I know, Lisa. She and her partner Vinetta own a lovely café in Vancouver called Rhizome, at 317 East Broadway. Quite apart from the vibrant artistic and political events that happen in the space, the warmth of the proprieters, the queer vibe and Vinetta’s fantastic cocktails, Rhizome is becoming known for its brunches. Their menu features a dish I’d never before seen on a Vancouver menu, chilaquiles (torn tortilla strips layered with sauce and eggs). I asked Lisa for the recipe, to include in my book. She wrote me back with a story, reminding me that recipes aren’t just directives for cooking, they are a also a way in which women have communicated for centuries. Lisa wrote:
“When I was in San Francisco I worked with a Latina immigrant women’s organization for ten years. We did community organizing around immigrant rights and racial justice issues and built the skills and collective power of immigrant women as leaders and organizers. There are about 300 women who make up the group—some of whom have been working and organizing together for 15 years. One of the women I worked with for a long time is named Socorro Beltran. She and I used to go out together to eat chilaquiles and drink hot mugs of Mexican chocolate at a little restaurant in SF’s Mission District….those chilaquiles are a symbol for me of what I left behind—real camaraderie in struggle and the inspiration of working with such incredible community leaders—all wrapped up in the warmth and goodness of home-made Mexican food. When we were getting the café started, I called Socorro and told her I wanted chilaquiles on the menu—just like the ones she and I like to eat. She gave me her own recipe over the phone, which is what we’ve been serving ever since… I’m going to SF soon and plan on going to her house to cook and eat together. I told her that people here are already addicted to the chilaquiles so maybe we don’t need to mess with the recipe, but she feels that there’s always room for improvement.”
Unfortunately the recipe can’t yet be printed here. Lisa and Socorro need to work out some wrinkles. Lisa concludes:
“How long can you wait to get the recipe? We can’t print it until Socorro has had the last word!”
You’ll be the first to get breaking news on Socorros’s recipe. Right here, on Recipes for Trouble!