Salad Inspired by a Vintage Recipe Box
Which sounds like a metaphor for my brain, but Actual Recipe Boxes were involved
HAPPY BELATED MOTHER’S DAY, to those who celebrate!
And happy belated newsletter! I’m so sorry to be running a couple of days late, but I spent last week in Galax, Virginia—birthplace of clawhammer banjo and me. When I travel back here, it’s at great risk to my physical and emotional health, because it requires driving on two virtual tractor-trailer raceways outside Charlotte, NC, Interstates 77 and 85, the latter of which regularly wins a spot on the country’s twenty-most-treacherous-interstates lists, and the former of which once got so foggy as I made my way to Galax from New York that I had to drive with my rental-car door open to see the white lines on the shoulder and to avoid being catapulted to my death.
But I do it anyway because my 87-year-old Aunt Mariah lives here. She’s the best, and anyone who knows me knows I’d do anything for her; she’s a star character in my book and frequently appears here, too, possibly against her will—but always wearing a crown made from the jewels of my affection.
With these visits often comes a certain amount of snooping in her recipe boxes (she has four, as well as various recipe folders in various locations). Mariah knows and condones this, so it may not be snooping per se, but it feels like it because, as I have written (quite extensively) before, recipe boxes are very intimate things. They reveal a lot about their owners and their cooking and the cooking of the era they’ve lived through and the dishes their family and friends loved or were asked to share. And, of course, they are an important record of which dish “could use more vinegar” or “still needs something.”
This week, however, for the first time, I focussed solely on the cards behind the SALADS divider.
The salads in these boxes naturally constitute a smaller category than CASSEROLES, SOUPS AND STEWS, DESSERTS, and SAUCES. But they were also much more interesting than I’d imagined after years of avoiding them out of an unconscious bias against fluffs, delights, and molds, names which usually indicate that the dish is made with Jell-O and is only masquerading as a salad.
There are probably a lot of these in vintage recipe boxes everywhere. Including duplicitous delights and molds that seem to believe that all you have to do to be a salad is call yourself a salad, like these two jokers:
I have nothing against this practice, really; to each his own and to every generation a salad! They’re just not what I was on the hunt for.
And far be it from me to add to the ridicule that these Jell-O dishes already receive. They were probably a bit of a godsend to mid-century housewives, who might not have always had the time or the money to get something as fresh as a salad on the table regularly. Suspending leftover ingredients in gelatin allowed them to extend the life of fruits and vegetables while also offering dishes that seemed special and looked pretty (sometimes).
I won’t go into the history of gelatin in cooking, which goes back hundreds of years, or how delicious some of these gelatin salads can be, or even venture into the delightful way food hipsters have taken over and reshaped gelatin dishes into beautiful art, both edible and non-edible.
My point is: I was wrong to assume that most of the salads from these vintage salad boxes would be . . . upsetting.
So I apologize to the family members, friends, and strangers, both living and dead, whose recipes are in these boxes and who were simply following the trends of their respective eras the same way we do today—what with all the crazy food over on the TikTok machine and such.
Speaking of the living and the dead, here is a photo of my late mother, a terrific cook (a couple of her recipes are in these boxes), with Aunt Mariah, back in the 1960s. It’s followed by a favorite poem of mine about a dinner party, which I bring out when I am tired of crying about tragic or sad things and wish to instead cry about beautiful things.
Since You Asked, by Lawrence Raab
for a friend who asked
to be in a poem
Since you asked, let's make it dinner
at your house-a celebration
for no reason, which is always
the best occasion. Are you worried
there won't be enough space, enough food?
But in a poem we can do anything we want.
Look how easy it is to add on rooms, to multiply
the wine and chickens. And while we're at it
let's take those trees that died last winter
and bring them back to life.
Things should look pulled together,
and we could use the shade-so even now
they shudder and unfold their bright new leaves.
And now the guests are arriving-everyone
you expected, then others as well:
friends who never became your friends,
the women you didn't marry, all their children.
And the dead-I didn't tell you
but they're always included in these gatherings-
hesitant and shy, they hang back at first
among the blossoming trees.
You have only to say their names,
ask them inside. Everyone will find a place
at your table. What more can I do?
The glasses are filled, the children are quiet.
My friend, it must be time for you to speak.
Anyway! The fact is I found quite a few salads and luscious-looking dressings that I wanted to make, including from Mariah’s mother-in-law, my late grandmother, Beatrice, whose handwriting was as opaque as the early scratchings of Homo Erectus.
One of her recipes appeared to be for “MFing Salad Dressing.” I thought: Well, okay, who among us has not felt this way while trying to achieve a perfect vinaigrette?
I still don’t know exactly what the recipe card says. But it wouldn’t have surprised me to know Bea had been frequently exasperated about making dressing or other more time-consuming dishes. Like her contemporaries born in the very early 20th century, Bea was expected to make a hell of a lot of the food that got eaten at home, which I’m pretty sure was a situation she was extremely not nuts about, even though she was a very good cook.
So it wasn’t until I got deep into Aunt Mariah’s recipe cards that the approach to salad (and other foods) began to seem less utilitarian. I found salads that clearly had begun to come of age in the 70s and 80s—an era when creativity in cooking outweighed mere duty. These salads were freer and more lighthearted! They’d burned their bras!
I found them to be extremely friendly toward the idea of fruits and greens shacking up with fresh greens. They frequently starred blue and brie cheeses, were chock full of nuts and olives, and eventually became dizzily enamored of raspberry and balsamic vinaigrettes and sun-dried tomatoes. Simple and modern, they reminded me of cocktail-party cheese boards —before everyone began turning them into edible Disneylands.