Friday, March 11, 2011

Two good rules of life

Today I’d like to add two rules to my ever-growing list of life lessons.

One: You can never have enough tote bags.

Two: You can never have enough cook books.

In a life of general chaos, I like to convince myself that I can compartmentalize things if I store them all in their own separate bags. This is sometimes handy, but sometimes just means that 90% of my possessions are at the bottom of a big canvas tote with a mess of crumbs and randomness. (Today I found my measuring cup in a bag with vinegar and six pairs of scissors.)

And while I stand by my fetish for tote bags, I admit they sometimes can be excessive and unreliable.

This all leads me to rule number two, which unfortunately comes with a caveat. There is definitely an excess of unreliable cookbooks out there. I should know- I’ve got a tote bag full of lousy ones clogging up the basement. But there is one special type of cookbook that never fails, and you can rarely have too many of. I’m speaking of none other than the infamous fund-raising church cookbook.

For decades if not centuries, men and women have gathered their most beloved recipes and assembled them in generic categories. Between each section is a page of quips or tips to entertain the reader as they pour through the recipes, each hand-typed (at some point) and bound together by a plastic spiral that seems to stand the test of time, rolling pins, and hot stoves.

Submitters offer their old favorites with new and enticing names. Clever and quick-witted, a brief flip through a church cookbook might reveal Sombrero Party Dip (microwave) or Mom’s Fresh Dressing. These are not to be outdone by such specialties as Delores’ Cheesecake or Dreamy Pudding Pillows, something that makes me both hungry and sleepy all at the same time.

Ingredients are listed, often with side notes put in like, “I use oleo” or “This is great for leftover turkey!” and directions that sound like your neighbor down the street is explaining it over the phone.

And there, in plain ink at the bottom of the recipe, is a name. It’s the name of a person willing to claim the results of whatever came before it, good or bad. It’s the name of a person willing to share a potentially secret family recipe, and put out there, in black and white, their eating habits. And some of them aren’t the prettiest, I must say. Thankfully you have options. Take for example, beef strognanoff, listed on pages 41 through 43 of a favorite cookbook. Not only is there Beef Stroganoff, there’s also Tasty Beef Stroganoff and Easy Beef Strognanoff. So many choices, there’s surely something to please everyone’s palate.

The favorite cookbook that I speak of is one that has been in my family for generations. I was never sure what the cover looked like because while the plastic spiral binding was intact, the heavy card stock was long gone. It contains recipes from my great aunt’s church in a suburb of Cleveland where I grew up. Half of the names on the pages end in “-ski” or have an 8:1 consonant to vowel ratio, and a good number of the recipes I can’t quite pronounce.

My great aunt gave me one of her copies when my husband and I were first married. Inside, she has checked off some of her favorite recipes, and whether they are marked because of the actual food or the person who submitted it, I may never know. I’m not sure of when the book was actually distributed, but I have a sinking feeling that so many of those people are no longer with us. Delores may be serving her cheesecake in a better place, for all I know.

What I do know is that in the front cover, my great aunt wrote the following: “Family fun, good times in store. And so much to be thankful for.” Those words are most definitely reliable, not remotely excessive, and will never, in a million cookbooks, end up in a tote bag.

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