French Friday: Beyond Recipes

Now that Halloween is behind us…


One Holiday. Two Interpretations for my friend and me.

I’m switching to Thanksgiving mode.

And when Thanksgiving is in the air I think in recipes. When I think in recipes I dig through my Manila Recipe Folders.

Which are filled with clipped recipes, the only reasons why I liked taking my kids to their pediatrician, dentist, and orthodontist. There, the waiting rooms were packed with the latest – and also very old – issues of women’s magazines. So, while we waited for the appointment, I leafed through Sunset, Real Simple, Woman’s Day, Martha Steward Living, Family Circle… and copied recipes. Sometimes, I tore the page, but only from the very old issues. I assumed I wasn’t the only one who didn’t buy these magazines but still liked the recipe section. I did the same with the San Francisco Chronicle, The San Jose Mercury News, The Boston Globe, and the New York Times. But I bought some newspapers, so I could tear the pages.

Sometimes I glued them in a notebook. More often I filed them into my Manila Recipe Folders, which I labeled with titles. Some obvious: Appetizers, Main Dishes (still have a hard time with the American Entrées which are my French appetizers), Desserts, To Keep. Others more cryptic: To Try, Maybe When I Have Time, Too Complicated, and To Test.

No, To Try and To Test are not the same. My To Try recipes are really no brainers. I just need to try them. My To Test recipes, on the other hand, own equal potential for success or failure.

When my daughters are home they always tell me that it feels good to be back in a house that is spotless and tidy. But they always wonder how I can find anything in my messy Manila Recipe Folders. It’s true that I’m not someone who leaves her clothes on the floor or dirty dishes in the sink for two days. But to be organized is not the purpose of my Manila Recipe Folders.

Messy? Absolutely? Useless? If I consider that I’ve really used about a fourth of these recipes, probably. Should I get rid of them? Are you kidding me? These recipes are precious. They are part of my catastrophe emergency gear. I admit that the Too Complicated one should go. Maybe. It’s like a pair of pants or a T-shirt you’ve not worn in years. You know you should give them away. But you keep them. Just in case.

You could also argue that Google would be much easier than these magazines and newspapers clipping tradition, which is so 20th century.

First, my collection of recipes started in the 20th century, in the very early 1990s to be precise, still years before the Internet was a click away from us. Second, when I browsed through the magazines and newspapers I had no idea what recipe I would find. More importantly, my gathering of recipes was (is) much more than clipped recipes.

I am almost sure that millions of immigrants, in their first years in the United States, have similarly compiled recipes whose mysterious names evoke our new, even more mysterious land: Triple Fudge Brownies, Sloppy Joes, Red Velvet Cake, Deviled Eggs, Monkey Bread, Candied Yams, Casseroles…

Wow! What are these? Casseroles intrigued me since “casserole” means saucepan in French. Thanks to a magazine, I found out what an American casserole really was.

Not a casserole 🙂

My mass of unsorted recipes is the witness of my first steps in this country. Food and assimilation go hand in hand, I think. Eat what people eat and you’ll know a little bit more about them. When a foreign recipe became mine I was making this land mine too. Of course, anyone who has been through the experience remembers that the learning curve is rocky.

Once, I was invited for coffee at a friend of mine, a recent acquaintance really. Such invitations were very rare since I was recently arrived. Since French women never show up anywhere empty-handed, I brought a freshly baked batch of brownies.

“I never make my brownies from a mix,” said the hostess. “Always from scratch.”

I didn’t know what a mix was and had never heard the expression “from scratch.”

But I was fluent in tones of voice and facial expressions. My brownies didn’t cut it. I knew, though, that they were more than decent. My husband loved them. So I tried to explain that I had made them following Katherine Hepburn’s favorite brownie recipe. The actress had sounded to me American enough to have a legit opinion about brownies.

Later at home, I opened my dictionary and searched for “scratch” until I found the meaning of the expression “made from scratch.”

My brownies had been slightly burned, presented an irregular texture and small crevices. Yeah, 100% homemade.

I supposed that it was just hardfor this woman to imagine a French woman recently arrived to come up with a genuine brownie recipe.

To her credit it is true that American food was pretty much absent in France until I left. The first Parisian McDonald opened its doors in 1984, four years after the very first one in Strasbourg. A few American restaurants had opened, primarily in the Halles, in the very center of Paris. My American culinary knowledge was basic: hamburgers, Cobb salad, chili con carne, cheesecake, and yes, brownies served plain or à la mode.

When I arrived in California I already favored baking to cooking, so I was more interested by the desserts section when I browsed through magazines and newspapers. I mouth-watered when I scrolled down the list of ingredients. Some spices were new to me. Cinnamon was not a French favorite. Walking past a café that sold cinnamon buns or anything cinnamony felt so exotic! Even though I now bake with cardamom, ginger, pumpkin pie spice, matcha green tea powder, and other kinds of spices, cinnamon will always incarnate American baking. Smelling cinnamon away from the States is my Proust’s madeleine.

Back then in France, vanilla was mostly sold in sticks (gousses de vanille) or as ultra fine sugar flavored with vanilla and sold in mini pouches (sucre vanillé). I found vanilla extract much more practical, even though the sticks work better for some recipes.

At this time of the year, I return to my old, messy, stained Manila Recipe Folders. Will I spend an hour going through the To Test? Probably. Will I try one recipe? Maybe. More likely I’ll stick to a classic from the To Keep, one American recipe now a Holingue family heirloom.

Although, I’m thinking of arriving just a tad early when I go cut my hair next week. I’ll leaf through the forgotten pile of magazines while waiting for my hairstylist. Chance is I’ll discover a new recipe or a twist on a classic. Nowadays, people prefer their phones, so it’s okay to tear the page.

I’ll slip it into one or another of my Manila Recipe Folders. Which I keep disorganized in memory of my first American culinary discoveries.

From one recipe to another, I’ve walked quite a long road toward becoming an American.

Even though I’ve sometimes only scanned through them.


P.S. Like everyone else, I also search for online recipes. And print them.

P.S.#2 BTW, what I wrote about my Manila Recipe Folders is not 100% true.

I know exactly where is the recipe for Roger Toguchi’s Favorite Hawaiian Banana Bread – no idea who this guy is, but his banana bread recipe is the only one I’ve ever followed. I always find the one for the Blueberry Buckle.

And I will never lose Katherine Hepburn’s Brownie recipe.

From the very early 1990s


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