handwritten sour cream cake recipe
photo: susan dworski

Rainy days always slow me down and tuck me in, seducing me to perform unnecessary housekeeping chores unimaginable in bright sun. When my ancient, duct-taped, binder of recipes tumbled off the top of the fridge in a splat of disorganization, I remanded it to the top of the clothes dryer. Now, a few drops of rain have induced guilt and curiosity. As Japanese poet Ryokan wrote:

Too lazy to be ambitious,
I let the world take care of itself.
Ten days worth of rice in my bag;
a bundle of twigs by the fireplace.
Why chatter about disillusionment and enlightenment:
Listening to the rain on my roof,
I sit comfortably, with both legs stretched out.
I sift through the pages. Fifty years of recipes slip through my fingers, many handwritten in spindly, old fashioned, cursive handwriting by women who have passed from this earth long ago, leaving behind their grease-spattered, thumbed, much loved meals handed down through generations.
A neighbor who harbors illegal, obstreperous, white ducks under her back porch scribbled this Pound Cake recipe when she gave me a clutch of delicious, shit-smattered eggs. (The image is a page cut from her recipe book which she glued onto a page and then, apparently when she copied it, part of it was illegible, so she wrote the recipe in red over the part you can’t read. I know it’s weird and impossible to explain.)
handwritten almond pound cake recipe
photo: susan dworski
A Moroccan Chicken recipe commands joyfully: Use LOTS of cinnamon. But the swooping, enthusiastic cursive script familiar for over 45 years is a poignant reminder that the cook is now unable to navigate stairs and is living skint in Section 8 housing.
handwritten moroccan chicken recipe
photo: susan dworski
Beth’s mustachioed chef’s Sour Cream Cake (at top) remains a cholesterol slam dunk for weddings and anniversaries.
Sorting through the pages I wonder, what will happen to our food history, family history, cultural history, human history when cursive writing is no longer taught, used, or read?  Will these clumsy, butter-smeared, annotated artifacts called recipe books disappear into dumpsters along with last year’s cell phones and disposable diapers? Will any of our children and grandchildren be able to deciper these heiroglyphic, culinary texts?
The rain drums. Dusk has fallen. It’s time to leave off shagging these sad matters and tune into to my growling stomach. As Brother Lawrence put it, “It is not necessary to have great things to do. I turn my little omelet in the pan for the love of God.”

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14 replies on “laziness and handwritten recipes in the digital age

  1. Not handwritten, but just as charming: my recipe for chocolate cake from a friend who typed it (with a real typewriter; this was before computers) on a chocolate-colored card.

  2. What a beautiful and evocative post, Sally. Having lost my mother almost two years ago, I treasure the crinkled and photocopied recipes I have from her, some written on the back of an envelope, a bank deposit slip, or a school teacher’s lined paper. Our family-wide favorite is her chocolate chip cake, a recipe she got from a temple cookbook that became her signature addition to every family gathering. They are a piece of history, and even if I never make any of those recipes again, I will never part with them. Her handwriting was consistent and distinctive, and I love to look at the way she formed her letters, from an age when that was still a mark of education. Thank you….

  3. Hi Andrea. This wonderful, evocative post was written by frequent contributor Susan Dworski, whose name didn’t go out in the daily emails. Thank you for affirming how much the handwriting itself evokes the person, as well as the recipe.

  4. I’ve been a long-time reader of your lovely blog and have even contributed, albeit in a very small way, as a financial supporter. I winced, though, when I saw that you’d included what you determine to be a charming hand-written letter with the word “retarded” used in a derogatory way. I wonder if you would have done so had the writer used the word “nigger,” “kike,” or any number of other pejoratives. Hopefully, the use of this word will go the way of cursive writing, however charming it still might be to ignorant eyes and ears.

  5. I too treasure handwritten recipe cards and love to participate at wedding showers when they are requested as part of the activities. Could you please explain what the “tub” pan is on the first recipe and does the recipe call for 1 or 2 teaspoons vanilla and maybe 1 teaspoon salt? And what size pan for the almond pound cake? Thank you for sharing these!

  6. Dear Elizabeth, My sincere apology for this terrible gaff. Although it is very painful to read, I deeply appreciate your comment and have taken the image down. Moving fast when the piece came in several weeks ago, I did not catch the word ‘retarded’. But had I been moving more slowly, I honestly don’t know if I would have. It makes me realize how many words and phrases have been in my head for decades without notice or question. And language so informs our view of what is: of limitations and possibilities.

    Questioning the accepted, or kneejerk, is one of the most important things we can do to live fully and consciously, and one of ‘improvised life’s missions. I am very sorry to have failed on that front.

    The other thing essential practice is to own and learn from our mistakes and blindness. That I can do.

    With thanks for your clear voice and presence,


  7. From Susan Dworski, author of the post Laziness and Handwritten Recipes in the Digital Age:

    I’d like to make a very sincere apology to Elizabeth, who commented on the use of the word “retarded” included in the handwritten note from a reader about losing the ability to write well in cursive script.

    I consider myself quite sensitive to the enormous power of words – particularly words that have come to have a pejorative meaning over time – so I was shocked and ashamed to realize that I had not been offended by the use of it in this little squib.

    I was so focused on the overall subject of the post – the loss of personal touches in our increasingly digitized world – that I was blind to the insult of its usage in this context.

    Elizabeth is right to call attention to this oversight. Times change, and with it words and theirmeanings. Attention must be paid. Care must be taken. I regret my carelessness.


  8. From Susan Dworski:

    Good questions. It’s one of the challenges using these old recipes. I had to wing it myself. I used an angel food cake panfor the sour cream cake and it worked fine. Probably any kind would do. I used a teaspoon of vanilla and 1/2 salt, and then added a bit more after tasting.
    I like Penzeys extra strength vanilla (www.penzeys.com). For the pound cake I used a regular old pyrex meatloaf pan.

  9. Thank you so much, Sally, for your kind and thoughtful reply. I realize that those of us in the disability world, particularly those of us with children who are severely disabled, might appear militant to those who don’t understand the unique challenges we face — words are just words, we are told, over and over again. I so appreciate you addressing this on your beautiful blog and hope that I might always do as you do on this blog — inspire improvisation, change and improvement.

  10. I recall when my son was in school and learned not to use “retarded” but to use “”Special Education” instead. So, the kids began using “SPED” in its place with all the same negative nuances. How do we keep up? And how much crawling and apologizing should we do when we fail to keep up?

  11. It’s so neat that you have saved a collection of these recipes. The stories that go with the recipe, or with the piece of paper itself, are treasured memories.

    My mom has a recipe that she got from my grandma. Decades ago, a disgruntled worker from A&W restaurants called a radio station back in the and shared the secret Sloppy Joe’s recipe. My grandma memorized the ingredients and wrote it down as soon as she could. I love the story even more than the food itself!

  12. I am sure that a “tub” pan is a tube pan.

  13. Oh my GOD the sour cream cake recipe is my Aunt Olive’s, ingredient for ingredient! My fabulous Aunt Olive who was the matriarch of the family as her mom died early; who came to the United States with my father when they were 2 and 4 respectively, on a boat called the Amsterdam in 1906, who changed her name TO Olive from Ida!(She/they would have 4 more siblings once they got here.) She lived to age 95 and walked in her Nikes every day right up to the end. I still make that cake.

  14. Sally and Susan – thank you for answering my questions. It’s a girls’ weekend with my daughter starting today so the cakes will make a good project and treat while we let our toenail polish dry. I’ll print these recipes just the way they are, edit them with your notes and they will live on.

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