Finding Sunshine in a Box

by Beth Dolinar, contributing writer

While poking through my guest room closet looking for Thanksgiving decorations, I came across a small green wooden box. Its hinges were rusted and a scrape gouged a streak across the lid.

Sitting there on the floor of the closet, I lifted the lid and a flood of memory came rushing at me. It was my grandmother’s recipe box.

She was our dad’s mother; she was tall and graceful and wore her silver hair in a bun. Her parents came here from Slovenia in the last days of the 19th century, and she and her siblings were born in the first years of the next. 

She was a very good baker, something I was reminded of as I flipped through the notecards in the box. It  appears that at one time, they were filed alphabetically, but now I found cards stuck together in no particular order. In the almost hundred years of time, the index cards had gone yellow, and some of the writing in pencil was faded beyond what I could read. But I recognized her handwriting. 

It was the proper cursive I, too, had been taught, with t’s precisely crossed and the words leaning slightly forward. Looking at it I closed my eyes and retrieved a memory of her handwriting on letters she’d send to me at my college dorm. Inside the envelope would be a coupon for shampoo or toothpaste, and then on a scrap of paper the words Vote! Vote! Go to Vote!  That was a right not granted to women until she was into her teen years.      

By that age she’d been helping out in the kitchen every day. In the box were recipes for pies and cookies, soups and grape wine and something called chow chow, a tangy condiment made of green tomatoes. Some of the recipes contained little notations that she’d heard the recipe on the radio. 

Leafing through the cards, I couldn’t find the recipes for my favorites: apple strudel and goulash. I’d sit at her kitchen table and watched as she made the strudel, her long fingers stretching the dough into nearly translucent sheets. She’d add the apple slices, the cinnamon and then breadcrumbs, before rolling it all up. After it came out of the oven and cooled, she’d slice me a piece. Those thin layers had turned to a papery crisp, crunching in my mouth like fallen leaves. I can still smell that kitchen. 

I found no recipe for the goulash, either. It was more a soup, just beef chunks with potatoes in broth tinged dark red with paprika. Smashing the potatoes with a fork was the only right way to eat it. 

It was not until I had my own family and started cooking every day that I truly appreciated my grandmother and her cooking and baking skills. She lived into her 90s, and was leaning over that table rolling dough well past age 80. Sadly, those kitchen genetics of hers did not convey to me. I struggle with all but the basics, but I know how to follow a recipe.

Among the cards, I found a recipe for something called Sunshine Cake. I don’t recall her having made that for us; maybe she called it something else. It’s a simple enough recipe, just butter, flour, sugar, baking power and three eggs. Maybe I’ll give it a try when my kids are home over the holidays. (The recipe says to bake it in a “hot oven.” I’m guessing the usual 350 degrees will work.)

Looking at the cards, it felt like my grandmother was sitting there with me, as if my childhood was calling out to me. She’s been gone 20 years now, but her recipe box makes me miss her baking; I miss her hands and the way the kitchen smelled. And my god, that strudel! But mostly, I miss her.


Beth DolinarAbout the author: Beth Dolinar is a writer, Emmy-award winning producer, and public speaker. She writes a popular column for the Washington “Observer-Reporter.” She is a contributing producer of documentary length programming for WQED-TV on a wide range of topics. Beth has a son and a daughter. She is an avid yoga devotee, cyclist and reader. Beth says she types like lightning but reads slowly — because she likes a really good sentence.