Diane DiTullio Agostino was trying not to get emotional. But talking about her late mother’s recipe cards — her mom’s beautiful Catholic schoolgirl handwriting, the ancient spaghetti sauce stains, instructions for Nana V.’s turkey stuffing, Auntie Joe’s date and nut bread — brought her to tears.
“In today’s world, everything is disposable,” said Agostino, a financial planner in her 60s, from Milton. “If I went down in a plane, the dumpster would show up and these cards would be lost.
“But they’re like your genetic makeup. If you destroy them, you’re destroying generations of family history.”
For so long, we were a nation of recipe cards, handwritten or typed, splattered from family meals gone by, carrying instructions from long-gone grandmas and great aunts. Voices from the grave telling you to double the cinnamon or that it’s OK if the batter is a little lumpy.
But as the nation prepares for Thanksgiving and one of the most tradition-filled meals of the year, what has happened to all those essential family heritages stored on recipe cards? Has the Internet swept them all away, and with them memories that no cooking app could ever conjure?
The cards and their little boxes have not disappeared — yet. But increasingly they’re becoming the stuff of eBay sales or culinary curriculums, brought out only at Thanksgiving or for Christmas, no longer living documents but rather a history of women’s lives.
“They are a tangible link to the past, and I do worry about how we are going forward,” said Barbara Rotger, assistant director of Boston University’s gastronomy program. Her master’s thesis was “How to Read a Recipe Box: A Scholar’s Guide to Working With Personal Recipe Collections.’’
Rotger has the recipe boxes of both of her grandmothers and values them as much for the glimpses they give into the women’s lives. “One of my grandmothers had her own recipe for denture soak in her box,” she said.
The recipe cards show the connections people had, she added. “You see their social network. Maybe there’s a mimeographed sheet with recipes from this week’s church ladies guild luncheon.”
As a scholar, Rotger purchases recipe card collections off eBay and is particularly delighted when she comes upon something like this notation on a recipe for “Cousin Minnie’s Waffles.”
“Cousin Minnie was not a cousin of mine at all,” wrote the card’s owner.
Recipes have moved online, a format that values ease of shopping for ingredients, or sharing with a click, over nostalgia.
But in the 1940s and ’50s, when women’s domain was the kitchen, “the recipe boxes represented the pride and sense of organization a homemaker could, and did often, feel about her household management,” said Merry White, an anthropology professor at Boston University.
Preparing for an upcoming anthropology class on recipe cards, White said, she was showing a visiting friend her late aunt’s recipe box and was “shocked to find a card with instructions on how to deal with a broken collarbone (‘call doctor, never give an alcoholic beverage’).”
It showed, White said, that “women were nurses as well as nurturers.”
Her aunt’s box also includes wartime recipes. These, she noted, “involved getting around the rationing problem. Mayonnaise or margarine instead of butter. Canned pears and brown sugar. Stretching eggs with cornstarch.”
The most beloved recipe cards, of course, are those passed down from someone who not only enjoyed cooking but was herself beloved.
That’s Tracey Spruce’s late mother-in-law. “Her amazing home-cooked meals were a big part of what we did when we got together,” said Spruce, an attorney in Andover.
When her mother-in-law died several years ago, Spruce “kidnapped” her recipe box — plastic, yellow, splattered, perfect. “It makes me sad every time I look at it,” she said.
Spruce made a cookbook from her mother-in-law’s cards, scanning in photos of food-stained recipes, pictures of her mother-in-law cooking, and sometimes adding a little story about the time the family enjoyed the meal.
“Some of the recipes no one will ever make, but I included them for the sake of legacy,” she said.
For Sue Brady Hartigan, a veteran local DJ from Wellesley, looking at her late mother’s recipe cards is like hearing her voice again.
Her mother was a wonderful cook and a veteran grade school teacher in Stoneham, Hartigan said, as she lovingly read her mom’s recipe card for shrimp dip.
“1 pkg. (large) cream cheese softened, 1/3 cup salad dressing or mayonnaise, 3 tablespoons cocktail sauce, 1 teas. lemon juice, 1/4 teas. onion juice, 1/4 teas. Worceshire sauce. Mix ingredients together, then add 1 (4 1/2 oz) can tiny shrimp, drained. Chill in refrig.”
“It’s so her,” Hartigan said, admiring the clear handwriting, directions so precise that a first-grader could follow them, and the little tip at the end, “Serve with chips or crackers.”
“It’s like she’s talking to me,” Hartigan said.