Recipe Box Time Travel

By Frank Whitman

It’s rhubarb season.  In the last few years, we’ve developed a taste for this tart reddish stalk. It’s easy to chop up a few of the celery-like ribs and stew them with sugar to make a compote of sweet-tart spring flavor.  It’s great for mixing into breakfast yogurt, slathering on a roasting chicken, or sneaking a spoonful for a fruity treat.  

In college, Marsha lived on a farm in Bloomfield for two years. Her landlady, Helen French, had a large kitchen garden outside the back door where rhubarb was the first harvest of the spring. Helen’s granddaughter, Janie, made a rhubarb pie so tasty that memory of it has stuck with Marsha ever since. 

To broaden our rhubarb horizon, she pulled out an old recipe box to search for Janie’s method.  The venerable box, its peeling decorative paper spattered by long-forgotten cooking projects, was bursting at the seams with directions for often-made favorites as well as dishes admired but never cooked. 

Reading the titles aloud brought back desserts enjoyed, places visited, and meals with friends and family, recalling details of special occasions and everyday meals.  Her sister’s entertaining favorite, Poulet au Brocoli, a friend’s King Ranch Chicken and Marsha’s own go-to, Chicken and Rice North Portugal, all brought a smile. 

The pie section was an inch high stack of 3 x 5 cards, some handwritten, some typed, a few printed commercially. Grandma’s cream pie filling could be flavored with banana, pineapple or coconut.  Shoofly Pie came from the same source.   My mother’s Key Lime Pie originated on Barbados where the limes were plentiful.  Ritz Cracker Pie, flavored with walnuts and vanilla, was a family favorite from the past. “She made a really good coconut pie,” Marsha recalled about her mother while holding up a card.

Chocolate pie, aka French Silk Pie, was clipped from a magazine and pasted on a card.  Another irresistible version in Marsha’s hand is two pages of detailed method.  Sour Cream Apple Pie flavored with nutmeg was transcribed by Marsha from her grandma’s cook, Rosie. Aunt Mable’s open topped strawberry pie, perfect for this season, combined a layer of cooked filling with a layer of fresh berries and whipped cream.

A frozen lemonade pie was made from a list of off-the-shelf ingredients whipped together and chilled.

There was a thick section of cards from the Steinbeck House in Salinas California. The author’s boyhood home has been turned into a volunteer-run, old-fashioned restaurant, the kind of place with homestyle cooking and recipe cards to pick up on the way out. Strawberry-Rhubarb Whip – a blend of stewed rhubarb, jello and whipped cream – is the kind of dish seldom seen, but fondly remembered. Cards for pies included Brandy Alexander, French Silk, Blueberry Cheese, Frozen Cranberry, Sour Cream Lemon, Rum, and Pistachio.  

Reading through the collection, I realized that pies have taken a back seat on America’s dessert menu. Yes, there is still apple in the fall, and pumpkin at Thanksgiving, and I’m always on the lookout for a

Janie’s Rhubarb Pie

good cherry pie, but cakes seem to have taken over our dessert cravings. There are plenty of cake bakeries, cupcake stores, and cookie shops all with tempting offerings. But I only know of one business, Michele’s Pies in Wilton,  focused exclusively on pie. I can’t think of anywhere I’ve seen pie on a restaurant menu other than at diners, and even they seem to be dialing back their choices.

At home, a well-crafted double-crust pie is still an object of baker’s pride, but fruit crisps and open-top tarts are easier to make. Somehow, pie crust has gotten a bad rap as too much work and difficult to do well (the expression, “easy as pie” notwithstanding.) That’s a shame. 

Every recipe conjured up a stream of memories.  At the end Marsha held up a sheaf of cards and exclaimed, “I want to make all of these.”  Waistline watch out!

Janie’s Rhubarb Pie recipe card turned up in the tattered box. Short on details of the method, but with precise measurements of the ingredients, it looked do-able. Directions for the five ingredients had just one instruction: Mix.  “It’s a double crust pie,” Marsha remembered, but there was no mention of that on the card. 

We chopped, mixed, rolled and baked traveling back to the past as we did.  The aroma was intoxicating – the pie even better.