Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

For those of us who were adults before the advent of the Internet, a three-ring binder was the best way to keep track of our favorite recipes. Most of the women I know still have one, filled with recipes torn from magazines or printed from websites, handwritten by friends on index cards and photocopied out of cookbooks.

I have such a binder, though I have neglected it in the past few years as I have taken on more responsibilities at work and my husband has become the primary cook for our family. My ­recipe binder originally had categories—chicken, beef, soups, desserts—but the tabs are gone now, and I am the only one who can find things inside it. This morning, having decided in a fit of organization to resume weekly menu planning, I picked it up, expecting only to rediscover a few old favorites.

Instead, I was brought back to evenings I’d forgotten: “Had this with the Foleys, Summer 2006,” or, “Beverly made this for ­Thanksgiving, 1998—really good.” These comments in the margins recall people I have known and loved. They remind me of people who are no longer my friends, and of friends who have died.

Photo albums also preserve our memories. We probably have plenty of these, seldom-opened, sitting in cabinets or on shelves somewhere. But recipes are more suggestive. They evoke the tastes of being with others at specific times and places. The binder is a simultaneously mundane and poignant record of life. It has none of the organization of a well-designed scrapbook or journal—no telos or set beginning or end—but stands as a record of life lived, all the more immediate because it connects to the senses and to emotions, pleasures, and affections.

What did we talk about at that dinner back in 2006? Did I labor over every detail of the meal, or was it thrown together at the last minute? Did we have an intense, intellectual conversation, or was I managing a group of strangers, brought together out of a sense of obligation or debt? Did the guests handle their liquor expertly, or was I the agent of corruption who served them their first mixed drink?

The recipe binder chronicles trips and stages of life. It contains recipes that resulted from visits to exotic places: harira, a red chickpea soup eaten at the end of the day during Ramadan in Turkey; or the fresh pasta recipes that I swore would become customary because, after all, the Italians manage to make pasta from scratch every day. The binder recalls food fads and health resolutions—­recipes that were vegan or self-righteously plant-based, recipes copied from Mollie Katzen cookbooks that looked interesting but tasted like grass, Weight Watchers recipes with their point values helpfully (and judgmentally) appended at the end.

There is also a section labeled “Louisiana.” These are the basics from my childhood: gumbo, crawfish pie, jambalaya. I no longer need instructions to make red beans and rice, but I still have a recipe in the binder, stained from the time I tried to impress my Midwestern college friends by making it in our apartment. The “Fiesta Bake” reminds me of the time I learned that raw onions require cooking before being put into casseroles, and that Celsius temperatures are not the same as Fahrenheit.

The binder also chronicles my development into a wife and mother. I discovered in graduate school that beans are infinitely versatile in soups and stews, and later that banana pudding is a universal hit with children. One sad Thanksgiving morning, I learned that frozen turkeys cannot be defrosted on the counter the night before but must thaw in the refrigerator for several days.

All these things seem obvious now, but they were the fruits of living, trying things, and making mistakes. I can attempt to pass down some of this information to my children, but ultimately, they must construct their own recipe binders, or whatever the technologically advanced equivalent might be.

I doubt any digital recipe file can match the serendipity that goes with the old format. It will not contain the blocky print that is recognizably our mother’s handwriting or the “see you soon” of a friend who died young. A computer file won’t have the food stains and rips and crumpled edges that speak to the particularity of mixing together flour and oil, of spilling the wine or smearing the ink or accidentally setting the recipe itself on fire.

Other pages will remind us of the mundane material items that have punctuated our lives—chief among them the ceremonial cakes of childhood birthdays. Sometimes these were homemade, with candles to match the child’s age; sometimes they were Doberge cakes—eleven thin layers of cake held together by lemon or chocolate buttercream icing—­produced by a particular bakery in Baton Rouge. Or, we recall the blue earthenware bowl that held the Sensation Salad our mother often made, or the old KitchenAid mixer that was a wedding gift to our parents in 1961 and whose appearance on the counter always heralded something exciting.

The recipe binder grounds us in ordinary, daily experience, both present and past. This humble record of food and eating is not the stuff of mail-delivery meal kits or prepackaged foods at the local grocery store. It doesn’t reflect our intermittent ambition to cook things that were featured in Gourmet or Bon Appétit or James Beard’s latest cookbook. It generates tastes in our mouths for things we know and love already.

At a recent estate sale, while rummaging through dishes and glassware, I discovered another woman’s recipe binder. Upon opening it I found a miscellaneous collection of recipes annotated in an old-fashioned script. The contents included line drawings of apron-clad 1950s housewives holding wooden spoons, pictures of the latest ­Frigidaire appliances from 1964, recipes for olive molds and chicken pot pie and pineapple upside-down cake. Many of the recipes called for ingredients we don’t use much anymore, like oleo and lard. The binder contained instructions for making failproof liver and onions. Now and then, there would be a comment such as, “Russell’s favorite cake” or, “A great meal for company.” Of course, Russell is long dead, and his possessions have been sold to strangers, too.

I didn’t take the binder, but I did pay a silent tribute to the woman who had assembled it. It was a moving record of her devotion to her family and friends, to the people with whom she had shared her life. No doubt it was thrown into a dumpster with the other worthless items after the estate sale ended.

A recipe binder is a reminder of life’s transience. It is also a reminder that we should engage in activities that are humble but meaningful, such as cooking for the people we love. They may not remember it later, or at least the details may fade. But we will have formed a small part of their experience, and we will have given generously of ourselves, which is worth something in this busy age. 

Elizabeth C. Corey is associate professor of political science in the honors program at Baylor University.