Our basement held a mystery inside the plastic bins crammed with life memorabilia and stacked in rows like a giant game of Tetris. Over time, the edges had been softened by bags of overgrown clothes, stacks of retired toys and every cardboard box that ever came into our house.
The mess belonged to everyone in the family but only one of us was uniquely qualified, and monetarily inspired, to recycle, redistribute and return the plastic rows to their former glory: Teen daughter Bekah.
After several runs to thrift stores and the recycling center, she faced the bins.
“What’s in these? Do we need it all?”
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“If it’s not marked, I have no idea.” I said. “Some have been closed since the ’90s, maybe before.”
Commence project “Open the Bins.”
“Mom? You’ll want to see this.”
When my parents downsized many years ago, we inherited the box she was looking into. I must have had plans to share the sentimental contents with the kids, but Bekah’s treasure chest-surprised look told me otherwise.
Books. My entire literary childhood was in that box. Cherished books faded, bent and stained with love. “The Trumpet of the Swan.” “Charlotte’s Web.” “Grimms’ Fairy Tales.” Each dive in was a warm reunion ...
… then I held maybe the most hard-loved of all: a tome with a ripped cover and pages slipping from the binding.
“Let’s Start to Cook: Never Fail Recipes for Beginners.”
Good books transport us back in time, and I went to age 9. As a rite of passage, my brothers and I were given a regular night to cook supper, a copy of “Joy of Cooking,” and an introduction to this shared, basic cookbook.
“If you can read, you can cook,” Mom insisted.
I read; I learned to cook.
My original “Joy of Cooking” has always been in my kitchen, I still use it. But “Let’s Start to Cook”? I hadn’t seen the book with a 1966 copyright date and a 1970s cover vibe since Carter was president.
I turned to the pages that were most crusted with semi-ancient food bits. Quick Cocoa Cupcakes, “Make these cupcakes when you want a treat — quick.” Snowy White Layer Cake, with sidebar instruction on the use of an egg separator.
The Barbequed Hamburgers page had dark red splatters and instructions to brown the patties in “fat,” then cook for 45 minutes in a bath of sauce. When I read the recipe my tongue remembered the taste of the barbecue sauce I made for years until I had good barbecue sauce.
The Chili Con Carne recipe called for a “package of instant onion.” Instant onions are a thing? I saw recipes for foods that I had long forgotten existed: Ham Loaf, Salmon Loaf and Franks ‘n Beans (yes, a recipe! It’s baked!). I saw dishes that I had no recollection of having tasted, but the stained pages of the book told me they had been made: Sausage Corn Bake, Wilted Lettuce Salad, Cottage Cheese Dip and Hot Tuna Supperwiches: “It will take about 45 minutes to fix these the first time.”
Later that week I was talking with a friend while she cooked dinner.
“Does food go in and out of style? Are stuffed peppers out?” she asked.
I made a gaggy noise. “Stuffed peppers have always been out of style for me.”
But do they? After reuniting with my training cookbook, Bekah, the one person who was uniquely qualified to help us all taste my youth and find out if foods went out of style, flipped to the messiest page: One-Bowl Yellow Cake.
The answer? Not out of style but deliciously nostalgic.