Asmall rectangle of cardboard containing Ann Pillsbury's recipe for Hot Cross Buns cut from the back of a box and attached with a straight pin to a piece of unlined notebook paper. Four recipes on another sheet of paper, spaced evenly down the page, written in flawless penmanship, the recipe name set off to the left and underscored with a wavy line: Herb Mixture (English), Herb Mixture (French), Sage Sauce for Roast Pork and Curry Powder. On yet another page, the clean flat letters of a manual typewriter, ingredients perfectly aligned in two columns at the top, directions flawlessly pecked out and centered below. The recipe title, "Rice Spoon Bread," capitalized at the top left; the source of the recipe, "Duch. Windsor," top right.
More than 250 other pages -- handwritten or typed sheets, magazine and newspaper clippings, file cards, patches of cardboard boxes, letters and notes -- strained the spine of the 10-by 8-inch, three-ring binder that was slightly damp and splayed across a strip of grass at the curb of a quiet street in Takoma Park. A few feet away, a large black trash bag had spilled open, a few pieces of kitchen ware and dish drainer falling out, suggesting that the black binder had once been part of the bag's contents.
Susan Holliday, walking her dog on Buffalo Avenue on an uncharacteristically warm January morning, stopped to pick up the binder. Holliday, who runs her own public relations company, likes to cook simple meat and pasta dishes for her husband and two sons and keeps her recipes on 3-by-5 cards or taped into a file folder. She knew right away from the look of the binder that this was a recipe collection. And she knew that it should not meet the same end as the black trash bags lined up awaiting execution.
"An elderly widower in my neighborhood recently moved from his longtime home to a retirement community," she e-mailed me. "Among the piles of old stuff placed at his curb, I found his wife's 50-plus-year-old recipe notebook.
"The leather-bound binder is full of: typed recipes; handwritten recipes including carefully drawn diagrams, e.g., how to shape and serve chopped liver appetizers, chicken en papillote and a chestnut dessert from the Italian Embassy; . . . newspaper recipes and booklets . . . circa 1953 from places like St. Louis, Chicago and D.C.; recipes attributed to Jackie Kennedy and the Duchess of Windsor; and reminiscences of Maryland cooking from the early 1900s.
"Would you be interested in reviewing it?"
The next day the bursting black binder sat on my desk, the damp smell of age and the mustiness of a likely stay in a basement filled the room. No one who passed by or came into the office could resist, each carefully leafing through it page by page, past the recipe for Frankfurter Crown Roast on one page, French brined cherries on the next.
On the inside cover of the binder was her sticker, white with black calligraphy-style writing: "Ex Libris: Lillian N. Meyer."
Frederick Meyer, 84, is sitting in the sparkling clean and polished living room of his home in Silver Spring's Leisure World, dressed in casual pants, a freshly pressed shirt and comfortable shoes. Later that day he will go back to his home of 43 years, the one he just vacated on Buffalo Avenue in Takoma Park, to dig up a few of his favorite early-blooming crocuses and transplant them in the small patch of yard at his new place. On the phone a few days before, he couldn't recall the black binder, but as I opened it up before him some recollection stirred. Her cookbooks had once been in every corner of the house. "Every night she would get in bed and read -- but read a cookbook," he recalls. "She was always trying new things. Even when she bought a box of angel food cake mix, she never followed the directions. She added rose extract and made it something special."
Married in 1946 in St. Louis, the couple came to the Washington area in 1958 and Frederick, a botanist, was hired by the U.S. National Arboretum where he eventually became supervisory botanist of the Herbarium, until he retired in 1991. They shared a love of herbs, with Frederick writing, researching and traveling for his work at the arboretum, and Lillian compiling "A Pinch of Herbs," writings that she illustrated with line drawings. They traveled together occasionally; when he went alone on business he invariably brought back regional cookbooks, especially from the South. She taught school for a few years in Montgomery County, but "frustrated that children weren't being taught phonics," according to Frederick, she stopped and pursued her recipes and her cooking. They didn't have a family and "it was too bad because Lillian was so good with children," said Frederick.
As her interest became a passion, Lillian's love of food and cooking came, in time, to take hold of her physically. She gained weight and struggled to diet; she became less active, then sedentary. At times, she needed oxygen to aid her breathing. In 1983, at the age of 66 she died of pulmonary problems, according to her husband.
Frederick stayed on in the house until early this year. He gathered up her cookbooks and donated 14 boxes of them to the National Agricultural Research Library in Beltsville, but the black binder was overlooked. For weeks, beginning in December, as he and some helpers readied the house for sale, there began to appear on the curb strip outside his home, black plastic trash bags, neat and tidy and tied at the top, until one January morning, when one spilled open.
Aioli from Gourmet magazine, Cherry Whipped Cream Valentine Dessert from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Fruit Pudding from her mother-in-law (who is referred to throughout as Mother Meyer). The recipes are both a time capsule of American cooking in the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s and a collection so personal that they are almost a diary of the woman who took the time to copy, type, collect and organize them. There is the occasional editorial comment ("Light and delicious!" of a consomme from Trader Vic's; "unusually tender and light as a feather," of Betty Crocker's Parker House rolls). But real disclosure is in the selection itself, in the acceptance of the status quo on the one hand (a friend's recipe for deviled eggs) and in the reach into the cultural, if not culinary, stratosphere on the other (first lady Jackie Kennedy's baked fruit dessert). Caught somewhere between the domesticity of the post-War American housewife and the ambition, opportunity and self-expression that eventually would be won by or allowed to women in the decades to follow, Lillian Meyer would clip the most common magazine articles ("Serve 'em Bologna Pancakes!") on one page and Chicken Creole obtained from Antoine's restaurant in New Orleans on the other. She both wanted to please ("Fred's Favorite" she notes on the Cream Tapioca recipe) and wanted to excel ("Chefs in Paris prepare and cook their pork chops in this manner," she writes of "Chef De Guoy's Baked Pork Chops Charcutiere").
In the years between 1952 and 1965, she tried tofu and sukiyaki, tuna noodle casserole and shrimp de Jonghe. She followed directions religiously or she took liberties. Mont Blanc aux Marrons, a recipe for a chestnut puree mold that originated at the famous Paris restaurant Maxim's, according to her notebook, had been handed down to her by her grandmother. But neither Maxim's nor her grandmother kept her from doing her thing: "Above is the original recipe," she wrote. "However, I like to take my chestnut paste, press through a ricer into my silver dessert bowl in 1 quick operation. Over this I pour a little bourbon or rum. Then I add a little of some to Cool Whip and mask the whole pile of chestnuts. Throw over crystallized violets if you can get them, or crystallized rose petals. . . . I use African violets a lot in my cookery. I know how to grow them, and since Frederick despises them as plants to grow he never touches them."
Lillian's recipes are now back with Frederick at his home in Leisure World, though I confess I hated to part with them. And I now look at my own collection of recipes with chilly regard. Lillian, like me, had no children of her own to inherit the part of her that is captured in her collection, the Meyer family cookie recipes, even the Norwegian Liver Sausage that appeared to have been passed down from her side of the family. I have recipes of my mother, at 86 still a great cook, encoded in my brain. They're mostly unwritten, since she's known for the perfect roast chicken and the tender pork loin and a certain polite but assured way of dealing with any butcher, even the supermarket guy, that somehow always results in their surrendering the perfect steak or roast.
But as I flip through the three binders on my kitchen shelf and find the crab soup that I make every Christmas Eve, the old standby Roast Chicken With Mustard Sauce that my husband and I enjoy on many a Sunday night and the glazed ham recipe that I inflict on my colleagues every year at the holiday party, it occurs to me, a childless woman in the week before Mother's Day, that if there is a cherished recipe, held dear by a family member, now is the time to get it or to give it.
In her binder full of recipes, Lillian Meyer left a warm and loving legacy. And until one day in January, when Susan Holliday walked by, there was no one to inherit it.