The Recipe Box

My Rouses Everyday, September & October 2018

In my family, a true mayonnaise requires a recipe. My Baton Rouge grandmother Lorelle made her own, and referred to jarred commercial versions as “bought mayonnaise.” Rich and eggy, her mayo glowed a pale yellow and had the consistency of creamy lemon curd. I wanted to make some mayonnaise, and I hoped I could find that recipe in my mother’s culinary biography — her recipe file.

Dating back to the 1970s, the white, notebook-sized binder sports a heavy cardboard jacket covered with drawings of climbing strawberry vines. It was designed to hold newspaper clippings and menu ideas in the time before Google and Pinterest put a world of cooking in our cell phones. Overstuffed and tied shut with a threadbare red ribbon, the file held my mother Carmelite’s pieced-together cookbook, a retrospective of her lifetime in various kitchens. My mother passed away in 1995, but her file lives on, stashed on a dusty bookshelf in my home. I rarely open it, except for times like these.

Now, unlike my grandmother, my mother was not one of our family’s most celebrated cooks; she worked full-time most of her life and raised several kids and stepkids, so elaborate cooking was not something she had the time for or did very often. While her mother was a classical homemaker, Carmelite evolved into more of a modern survival cook. But cook she did, and I knew that the chances were good that at least some of my grandmother’s recipes might be preserved in that old binder. I knew that compiled inside it just might be a copy of the entire Hebert clan’s culinary canon — and hopefully, that mayo receipt.

Digging through it, I’m always amazed by the hilarious and disorderly collection of printed and handwritten materials. The sheaf contains three decades of kitchen education, aspirational home economics and workaday standards that kept our ravenous family fed.

Before the advent of laptops as kitchen appliances and coffee-table celebrity chef cookbooks, many home kitchens ran on the weekly wisdom of the newspaper food section, and my mother’s was no exception. Most of the recipes in Mama’s file are yellowed, clipped columns from the kitchen corner and advice columns from the newspapers in all the places she lived (and cooked) — South Florida; Richmond, Virginia; Houston; and, eventually, New Iberia, Louisiana.

But my favorites for pure artistic appreciation have to be the hundreds of hand-written recipes from family members, friends and coworkers. Most come from the era when students competed for Best Penmanship awards, and since many of Mama’s people were schoolteachers, their perfect cursive can just take my breath away. The handwritten formulas are the ones that make me the most nostalgic — seeing the different flourishing scripts of my grandmother, all my aunts and my mother is like hearing familiar voices, each distinct and instantly recognizable. I can tell the subtle differences between the longhand of my aunts Lula Mae Hebert Prides (homemade ice cream) and Barbara Hebert Willis (pancakes). The six Hebert sisters maintained a constant flow of letters and kitchen communication, even as some raised their own families far from Baton Rouge.

But their recipes, shared freely among the aunts and other family members and close friends, kept them a kindred and connected clan, no matter how distant they actually were geographically from each other. And each family’s recipe collection was like a colony of information, handed down, passed around, literally shared by countless home cooks. In our family, every offspring possesses a recipe file, and each file contains a photocopied version of a Lorelle classic — my grandmother’s tossed-off “process document” for frying oysters. To call it a recipe would be a stretch, as it starts off with “crack eggs in blue bowl” (we all know the one) and ends with “You’re on your own” (which is true too — or is it? I never feel alone when I’m cooking a recipe handed down from Lorelle or Marguerite or one of the aunts).

Leafing through page after page, I can’t help but marvel at the sheer tonnage of family history contained in that recipe file. Names of forgotten family friends, my mother’s handwritten notes and grocery lists. Long recipes copied by my cousins as fourth-grade handwriting practice. The most-loved recipes — the true classics from our home — were in the roughest shape. They were the ones with the least detail, often little more than ingredient lists scribbled on envelopes, pay stubs or bank deposit slips. You could tell they were the best-loved because Mama’s writing was faded and barely legible from constant use, the pages held together by kitchen spills and memory.

After a few hours digging through the recipe file, I still couldn’t find my grandmother Lorelle’s mayonnaise recipe, and decided to do the most efficient thing: I’d just call Noël.

I consider Carla Noël Hebert Prescott, my mother’s youngest sister, to be our family’s most organized archivist, and the glue that nowadays holds our recipe collection together. Still residing in Baton Rouge and a grandmother herself, she lived her life as a dedicated family documentarian, fantastic photographer and always the first to “put things into the computer.”

Her personal recipe file contains our family’s culinary heirlooms as well as interesting dishes from her travels and her weekly Po-Ke-No circle. I knew my best bet for putting my hands on Mamma’s mayo recipe would be to contact Noël. After a 20-minute catch-up conversation — the bare minimum for an Hebert phone call — I got the mayonnaise recipe and some new stories about her grandkids, but most of all, I felt once again a solid connection to three generations of Hebert women.