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Memory Lane in a little black book

By Amy Nielsen

I have the little black book that I started in culinary school. Get your head out of the gutter. It is my master recipe book. It’s a black heavy cardboard spiral bound thing, four inches by six inches with thick textured paper inside – like those sketch books angst-ridden teens carry around. This one has graph paper inside it and a sticker of the conch republic on the cover. That alone should tell you something about me.

On a left hand page in the last third of the book near the bottom of the page, are the recipes I need this week. My Mom’s stuffing, Alton Brown’s brine, and Chef Keith’s green bean casserole.

The book became somewhat infamous at school when several students approached me to make copies of it as we neared final exams. My master baking instructor did make a copy of it, marking it up with red pen penned errors. I don’t know where that copy went, and I never made the changes in the book – but I know what they are.

I have added my, and other, special recipes to it over the last 15 years. In the beginning I added recipes quickly. I added the best of the best from my classes in school. I added recipes I tasted in restaurants. I read everything foodie and would create something and plant it in the book hoping to use it to impress later. There are recipes for every day and for special occasions. Some I have never used again and some I use almost weekly – so much that I no longer need the reference I put down.

I would add anything that came to mind that I didn’t want to lose, my Mom’s chicken curry and dolmades were among the first recipes I added that didn’t come from school. I went through a cake making phase thinking I would eventually write a book and the back has several pages of recipes I developed, a favorite is a chocolate whiskey cake. Maybe I’ll make that one this week too.

For a while I was collecting flavor combinations rather than recipes and those pages read like an Avant-garde beat poem; radishes, peas, mint - foam. Then there are the shock value recipes; black squid ink pasta, with hot pink beet and ricotta filling served in neon green spring pea and parsley pesto cream or sweet apple aspic over orange and cherry cream cheese “salmon” complete with candied lemon slices and sugared parsley.

After school ended and I landed my first real cooking gig, I recorded information useful to a production kitchen. I have a great recipe for chicken pot pie for three hundred and fifty that requires ten gallons of milk and two pounds of roux. Need coq a vin for a hundred? I have that too. I also have the secret recipe to the most amazing cold curry chicken salad ever, dictated to me in Spanish by my head production cook - closed in the walk in so no one would hear us – and no – I won’t share it.

When I finally moved on to a new position and place in life, I started adding recipes for household meals. One pot wonders, casseroles, quiche, and quick fixes. I was a military wife and I was in the thick of home entertaining. Let me tell you, military spouses can cook the pants off of some very famous chefs I have studied.

There are recipes for spam musubi, kartoflesalat, kimchi, and lumpia. The most amazing collard greens I have ever had, a recipe from a white chick from Alaska by way of her Puerto Rican neighbor in Singapore. Recipes for ingredients impossible to find outside of the region; mango lassi from mango in the front yard, sassafrass root beer from the trees over the hedge. Delicacies from far flung hang outs; huli huli chicken, sausage gravy, and peanut soup.

Somewhere along the line I stopped being able to write on the pages. I have stuffed recipes in margins, on the bottom of half used pages, and even in the front and back covers. I began to add slips of paper with scribbles ratios and perhaps an ingredient list, rarely any method.

Sometimes I can decipher what I was squiggling and have rewritten a more full recipe out, though usually not bothering to transcribe it to a fresh sheet of paper. Other times, well, it took me three weeks with a slip taped to the cabinet door to figure out that it was for naan. There are clippings from magazines, printed pages, and cards handwritten by friends.

When I began my proper herbal studies, I started adding herbal remedies to the pile. Tonics and teas, formulae for spice mixtures and tinctures. I found a few notes reminding me of forgotten herbs and the occasional change in a long written recipe of an herb that might fit better.

These days it takes a lot to get into that book, both as a recipe and as a researcher. Somehow it has become more of a repository for memories than a place I search for recipes. I have Pinterest for that. This book is a place I go when I need to be reminded of where I come from.

I suppose I should start up volume two but somehow I just keep stuffing scraps of paper into this one instead. It looks more like a file folder than recipe book, with papers sticking out at odd angles and corners bent and fraying. It's held together by a straining silver spiral on one side and a fat hair tie - as is proper.

Maybe next year.

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