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



  1. Well, I’d like to try those brownies. Yum!

  2. I like your costume.

    And I’ll bet your brownies are better than my mother’s, and that’s hard to do.

    • I must say that the costume had some success, for being a last minute one. It happens to us, bloggers, to hit this kind of page when we’ve made a mistake or another blogger has made one. Glad you like it. And I take the compliment for the brownies too 🙂

  3. I taught myself to cook at the age of 13 by following recipes in magazines, newspapers, tear-off ads for various ingredients, and the backs of ingredient packages. My favorite brownie recipe is still the one on the back of Hershey’s cocoa powder, and my favorite oatmeal cookie recipe is still the one on the Quaker oatmeal canister. I have those messy manila recipe folders, too, some of which I never use and some of which I MUST USE. 🙂

  4. I am so sorry you dealt with the “Only from scratch lady.” Obviously she lost her good graces in the baking aisle. Even if you brought me cooked beets from a can, I’d thank you.
    I have folded my magazine clippings and typed recipes to the size of recipe cards in my box. Every time I tell a child to search that box they scold me and tell me it’s too full, they practically have to empty it to search it. Well, yeah, that’s why I want them to do it! But I should probably consider a binder or something more… large, as your manila folders.
    Lovely post, Error 404 🙂

    • Yeah, that was strange since almsot EVERY person I’ve met in this country has always shown so much courtesy and grace. It was a little harsh when I understood what she had meant but life went on 🙂
      I’m not surprised to read that you also gather recipes from different sources, considering how much you cook and enjoy food. I glued some in a notebook, thinking I would make some kind of cookbook, but I still ended up collecting them.
      Last year I made a small recipe book for my kids with all their favorite childhood recipes. I used the clipped recipes and also handwritten ones and they love the gift.
      My Halloween costume was a hit and was so cheap to make. I still liked this T-shirt but it had holes at the bottom so I sacrificed it for the cause.

  5. Peggy has one of those files, Evelyne, and she is always talking about cleaning it out. But I’ve noticed that it continues to exist in pretty much the same condition, as a valuable memory. It seems almost forever that cooking was considered a woman’s ‘responsibility’ and that part of that was to gather interesting recipes. That’s changing, at least in our household. Our son and son-in-law are both good cooks, and I actually do the majority of dinners here. My recipe search is pretty much Internet, however. 🙂 –Curt

    • I suppose that all of us with these old fashioned files end up never cleaning them and that’s part of their attraction. Totally agree with the role changing. My son enjoyed baking and cooking when he was only a kid. He’s not yet a chef but can prepare his own meals, which I think is great. But his dad cooks really well. He never bakes or does any dessert. Which suits me so well since this is my department. The Internet has provided me with new recipes too, you know. There are countless blogs about food. And some of them are really great. See you on yours, Curt.

  6. I remember how hard it was for me not only to get used to the food made in Israel, but much more importantly, how hard it was to get used to the way ingredients were packaged and sold. It took me years to figure out how to put together recipes that had been standards at home. For one thing, at that point in time there were no “pre-packaged” foods in the grocery. They did show up later, but by then, I no longer needed them. I had to learn how to cook “from scratch.” I remember my son telling his friends “my mother used to know how to cook, but she came here and forgot.”

    • I’m sure it must have been quite an adjustment but so interesting too, I bet. Your son has a good sense of humor. Yeah, there are countries where cooking and baking from scratch are more predominant than in the U.S. But it is changing. I know more and more people who like to eat as fresh as possible and prefer cooking to buying packaged food. It can be helpful sometimes but there is something unique when you make it yourself, for sure.

  7. So to interesting- Is the monkey bread real?

  8. Behind the Story says:

    I haven’t added to my recipe files for a while. I must have thrown some away at some point, because when I go back to them, I can’t always find old recipes I remember. Looking through my files is a fascinating trip back in time. Styles in food have changed, and my taste has changed. Some of the casseroles I cooked when we were first married don’t appeal to me now. They’re too simple. I have recipes given to me by friends, even by friends of my mother. Then there are the recipes I collected when I was learning to cook Chinese food or the Filipino, Malaysian, Australian or Sri Lankan food my friends cooked.

    • Knowing your past, I would assume that you can cook great Chinese and Filipino food. I love foreign cuisine very much, when cooked by the peopke who are from these countries. Agree with you about our changing tastes. With more time now my husband and I prepare more elaborate dishes than we had our four kids home and were so busy with them and work. We ate more pasta back then 🙂
      I love to explore spices and herbs, particularly. They can give a twist to a classic.
      See you, Nicki.

  9. Very interesting. Last year, while watching a French pastry contest on tv while in Dijon, it was interesting how the local contestants used …French pastry preparation techniques not often found on North American tv shows. I mean all contestants practiced the techniques not just 1-2.

    • Training is very important in France and not only for cooking. I love the North American entrepreneurship spirit and the Do It Yourself attitude and willingness to learn to do everything. But sometimes I miss the good old French electricity or plumbing training 🙂
      The trade is seriously taken in France. Apprentissage or training matters. In cooking and baking, I think it explains the excellence. I am always in awe when I watch (like you did in France) the precision of their technique.
      Thank you so much, Jean for stopping by.


  1. […] learning about American cooking when I clipped recipes from magazines and newspapers, my field trips to American supermarkets were true hands-on experiences that taught me a lot about […]

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