kitchen riches sheri castle
photograph by Matt Hulsman

Pirates who prowled and pilfered along the North Carolina coast sought treasure chests filled with silver and gold. Meh. We can discover even more priceless finds in an old family recipe box.

Browsing the contents of a passed-down recipe box is akin to flipping through the family photo album. It conjures up memories and gives us glimpses into how we used to live and eat. Unlike old photos, however, classic recipes are repeatable history. We can still bake the pie that sweet old so-and-so made and enjoy a bite of time travel.

Inside a recipe box, we find 3-by-5 cards covered with the handwriting that once signed our birthday and report cards. We unfold old light-bill envelopes on which someone jotted notes so brief and random that they resemble cryptic code. We come across clippings from newspapers, magazines, and the backs of packages, held together by yellowed Scotch tape. There are recipes for dishes someone made with enough pride to warrant writing them down, or intended to fix at a later date — chronicles of accomplishments and aspirations. Family recipe boxes are accidental archives of everyday lives, time capsules filled by people we sure do miss.

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Sometimes the recipe box is no box at all, but a sheaf of papers slipped inside a book or coffee can. One of my dearest possessions is my Mama Madge’s recipe “box,” which is her collection slipped into a plastic bag that once held a pound of dried pinto beans. Both say much about how a busy housewife in the mountains of North Carolina fed her family.

At the base of the bag is a little notebook. The first entries are in the neat handwriting of a new bride who dreamed of ferrying recipes from her mama and aunts into her own household. Next came quickly scribbled recipes for baby formula made with Pet milk, Karo syrup, and liquid vitamins.

Later, the notebook was abandoned, and the bag filled with a time lapse of her recipes through 50-plus years of marriage. Dishes range from an era when nearly everything was homegrown and put up (such as Pickle Beans, which took weeks to ferment) to the advent of convenience ingredients (such as Cherry Yum Yum, made with canned pie filling and Cool Whip). There are recipe cards from sisters-in-law, Sunday school classmates, and neighbors, each of whom took the time to share a recipe that not only promised something good to eat, but also conveyed deep affection and camaraderie in their kitchens and communities — equal parts recipe card, greeting card, and calling card.

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This is not to say that every recipe in a family collection is a keeper (though they should be kept nonetheless). Chuckles ensue when we find a recipe for something we can’t imagine anyone ever wanting to eat. Maybe it’s a mystery casserole that’s the very definition of glop. Or a Jell-O mold encasing animal, vegetable, and mineral, all at once. The misses, as well as the hits, belong in our culinary genealogy. We owe it to our descendants to take up pen and paper to add our own entries to the family recipe box. Pen and paper. Not pin and post.

It might be more organized to collate recipes on a laptop or the Web, but no one will ever ooh and ahh their way through an heirloom hard drive. You can’t Google recipes that feel like messages from a covered-dish family reunion in the Great Beyond. Will an old iPhone ever cough up the recipe for Aunt Jean’s German chocolate cake? The one where she reveals her secret ingredient — in her own handwriting, for veracity?

Nope. That treasure belongs to you, the trustee of the recipe box. Some pirate (or your sorry sister) might have gotten the silver, but you took the cake.


Our State’s recipe developer, Lynn Wells, shared her family recipe box with us. Find out what’s inside at ourstate.com/recipe-box.

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Sheri Castle hails from Watauga County, but came down off the mountain to go to Carolina and now lives in Fearrington Village. She is a writer, recipe developer, cooking teacher, and popular public speaker. She is fueled by mountains, excellent bourbon, farmers’ markets, and searching for the right word. Sheri believes that stories happen only to those who can tell them. Check her out at shericastle.com.