THE KITCHEN DIARIES – COLLECTING RECIPE BOXES

I began collecting cookbooks (primarily church-and-club type) over 45 years ago. Soon after, I discovered a “manuscript” cookbook – or more accurately, it discovered me. I was rummaging around in a used book store in Hollywood when the owner said “I have something interesting in a cookbook – let me show it to you”. It was a small 3-ring binder with an old leather cover and it was filled with hand written recipes as well as hundreds of clipped-and-pasted on recipes. Its owner had kept her notebook cookbook for decades – and I bought it for about $10.00 (which doesn’t sound like much, now, but at the time I was raising my family and it was a lot) – but I had to have it. Over the years, I’ve found a few more manuscript-type cookbooks but they’re really scarce. My theory is that this type of cookbook remains in the family. I don’t believe that the owner of that first manuscript cookbook, whose name, I discovered, was Helen, had any children. Surely, one’s children would never allow something so precious to end up in a used book store.

Then I became interested in recipe boxes when I found an old, green, wooden recipe box in Ventura, California, at an antique store. It was packed with the former owner’s collection of recipes. I was so intrigued by this type of collection – what I think of as a kitchen diary – that I began a diligent search for filled recipe boxes. These are just about as scarce and hard to find as handwritten cookbooks. Often, you can find recipe boxes – in thrift stores or antique shops –but they are usually empty. I think the storekeepers don’t imagine anyone would be interested in the contents, which are often scrappy little pieces of paper, recipes clipped from the back of a bag of macaroni or flour, recipes written on a piece of envelope, – but over the past 15 or 20 years, I’ve managed to find quite a few of these filled recipe boxes. One time my niece, who lives in Palm Springs, found three of them for me at a yard sale; it helps that so many people know about my fascination with old, filled recipe boxes.

Another time, a girlfriend of mine was telling me about helping a friend of hers clear out her mother’s apartment, after her mother had passed away. “Oh,” I said “Ask your friend if her mother had any recipe boxes”. She did – and I got it. She also had, and gave to me, several cookbook autographed by cookbook author Mike Roy, with whom her mother had been acquainted. On yet another occasion, I was given half a dozen filled recipe boxes that had belonged to the aunt of a woman I worked with.

Now, I collect all types of recipe boxes but the ones I cherish the most are those filled with someone else’s recipe collection. One of these boxes is so old that the contents are extremely fragile and bits of paper disintegrate whenever you handle them.

Yard sales where I live rarely yield such treasures although once we were at an estate sale and I happened to find a cardboard box – shaped like a file drawer – filled with handwritten recipe cards on oversize cards, about a 4×6” size. I was able to buy it for $2.00. Part of the charm, or intrigue, of owning these boxes is going through them piece by piece, and trying to learn something about the person who compiled the box. I leave all of these boxes exactly “as is” because I feel to change them would change the integrity of the collection.

What makes these recipe boxes so enticing? I think old recipe boxes, filled with someone’s collection of recipes, are a window into our culinary past. Eventually, no doubt, someone else will discover these treasures, too, but in the meantime, I like to think that what I have is a fairly unique collection.

– Sandra Lee Smith

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7 responses to “THE KITCHEN DIARIES – COLLECTING RECIPE BOXES

  1. Have had a few of these (not the boxes, but usually church or community cookbooks stuffed with handwritten shared recipes fall into my lap over time, but never was as smart as you to actually go looking for them! I suspect as you hint at, that before things get put out for the estate sale, either a cooking or sentiment-minded family manner takes them–or if not, a zealous sale organizer wastes no time in pitching them prior to the sale—one must make room for the Avon bottles and crocheted kleenex box holders (no offense meant to lovers of either of these.) Love it when the person has made notes such as, “From Aunt Alice–her grandmother’s recipe?”; “a favorite at Hank’s 50th birthday dinner celebration”; etc. The recipe collections capture history of the person’s life, and should you make any of the recipes, become “living history.”

  2. Love your story. For Christmas right after my my daughter Nikki and son John turned 18 and they were venturing out on their own, I created a cookbook (a binder) for each of them filled with all the recipes of their favorite foods. At the front of each book I wrote a personal note to each of them. They will be turning 31 this week and they both have the book and use it regularly. I am not only touched that they still have it, I love that it is now filled with recipes that they’ve discovered on their own.

    • I love your story, Grandma Nancy. The recipe binders you created for your daughter and son were priceless — it’s the kind of thing you can’t just go out and BUY. Thanks for sharing this. – sandy

  3. I agree with you that hand-written recipes in books or boxes are treasures. I have a few of each but nothing like you have. That’s wonderful.
    Lillian @ lillianscupboard.wordpress.com

  4. Thanks for your comments, girlfriends. I think responses such as yours add to the flavor and content of the post. Lillisn, I saw on your blog where you had a small booklet of handwritten recipes that you acquired somewher and had been trying some of the recipes. My sister Becky, who passed away in 2004, kept 3 recipe boxes (I have one of them–have been trying to get myself motivated to type them and make a cookbook just of her recipes – but she also was famous for writing comments in her cookbooks (which I think her sons have) or writing on the recipe cards who liked it, when she made it. You know, I checked out recipe boxes on ebay for a while – and DID buy a few–but mostly the prices become astronomical, in my view, and I am not about to pay $30 or $40 for a recipe box no matter how tantalizing it may sound. I remember when I started out–and bought my first filled box in an antique store–I kept going back to look at it, reluctant to spend $11 on it. Finally broke down and bought it and that was probably over 20 years ago. Bob & I used to go to Ventura (where the downtown area has a bunch of antique and thrift stores) on weekends–it was only an hour’s drive and there was so much to see and do on Main Street. We usually went to a 50s diner (Busy Bee Cafe) for breakfast or lunch…and then would shop and window shop. Thanks for writing, Nancy & Lillian.

  5. I think I sent you a couple of the recipe boxes and I do remember the plastic bag full that I found at a sale. I was surprised that it wasn’t thrown out as someone probably kept the box. I am trying to send this on my new computer as couldn’t on my old one. Betsy

    • Hooray! It worked! and yes you did send me some of the recipe boxes and a huge pile of clippings you found at a sale. I went through all of them pasting recipes onto cards. So gla the new compute works! – Sandy

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