SEVEN INHERITED RECIPE BOXES make up my collection. I’ve had them with me now for so many years that I can remember at least four different places they’ve resided in my office, each for long periods of time. Amulets, icons–call them what you may–I always work with them in view; they are that important. And then recently, I discovered that they contain the code to life itself.
These boxes are part of my story, as much a part of my lineage as the looks that I inherited. That’s because these boxes contain the story of the women in my life, and link my husband’s and my ancestral nourishment from South Dakota to Indiana, back to England, Scotland and Germany. In that they reveal who we are, I guess, lacking, as they do, any recipes from Africa or from Asia. That is, unless you consider my mother-in-law’s Spam Chop Suey in any way Eastern, which would be seriously stretching this recipe. Its four basic ingredients are Spam, fat, rice, and a can of cream-of-mushroom soup. Each recipe in her box, in fact, includes some combination of these four.
If you consider their ingredients alone, you can see each of the recipe boxes I’ve collected as a steady diet for nourishment, disease, or some uneven prandial existence in between. They are also a handy way to explain genetics.
Here’s what I mean. Let’s say that the genome is my mother-in-law’s recipe box. If there are 23 little colored tabs sticking up within it—beef, poultry, cheese, casseroles, hors d’oeuvres, etc.—they are the 23 chromosomes in the human body. Within each of these are genes—or, in this case, the recipes—including, of course, the Chop Suey with its four basic ingredients. The human genome equivalent of these ingredients are adenine, cytosine, guanine and thymine, written in genetic transcription as A, C, G, and T, and just like Lillian’s four staple ingredients, these four are always present in every gene.
The idea of recipe exchange as an explanation for genetics also extends to the frequent emails sent to my dear friend Elizabeth. Both of us inherited an uneasy sense of dinnertime being catch-as-catch-can. We both hoped to not pass this on to our daughters. Back and forth between us travels a fluent battery of recipes cadged off the Internet. Ready to go with the touch of a file-attachment button, these recipes are simply cloned.
By contrast, my mother-in-law’s recipes are written by hand, transcribed over and over for her children and friends and therefore prone to typos and changes, but always have the same basic ingredients. This process is pretty much what goes on in replication, where the gene is copied and passed along. I have the box she made for her youngest child, my husband, in which she adapted the chop suey recipe to a serving for one; in her large-box version it’s adapted for twenty.
When we married, my husband brought his mother’s recipe boxes into our home and I brought mine. For holidays, we undergo genetic recombination, uniting our two families’ inherited recipes and laying them out as a single feast before our unsuspecting child, who will grow up thinking that this is the food— including the Spam Chop Suey—of her ancestors. Which is particularly piquant, since she was adopted in China.
As I wrote in a previous post, from time to time I’ll run the text of pieces I’ve read on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered. This post is adapted from one of those.