Life in the Margins–The Bonds Created by Recipe Scribbles & Notations

As I continue to talk about culinary legacy, I want to revisit a quote I excerpted in my Mother’s Day post. It comes from Janet Theophano’s book Eat My Words: Reading Women’s Lives through the Cookbooks They Wrote. In this passage, Theophano points out that old cookery books do not just contain recipes, but a whole range of notations and other writing that, combined, help piece together the story of the woman who created the book:

With the addition of marginalia, letters, poetry, and other forms of writing, women divulge[d] their beliefs, dreams, hopes, and fears. Women whose lives were absorbed by the welfare of others found it difficult, if not impossible, to write about themselves in the more usual genres of memoir and journal. As a consequence, some found their cookbooks–companions to their kitchen responsibilities, whether onerous or beloved–opportunities to write themselves into being.” (Theophano, p 8-9.)

I love her acknowledgement of the life found in the margins of these books, the notes and additions that reflect the person who wrote them and the times they lived in. Later in her book, she gives an example: an 1837 recipe for tea cakes includes the flour, eggs, and lard you would expect to find, along with a handwritten annotation advising that “a little brandy and nutmeg is an improvement.” (She is unclear as to whether that note was from the original author or a daughter to whom the book was passed, perhaps seeking to add some life to an older recipe she found lacking.)

Theophano also references the notion of legacy when she talks about the “bond created by possessing [a] physical artifact”–the cookbook–as “the means by which members of different generations become entwined with one another,” like, perhaps the mother and daughter who shared the tea cake recipe above. (Theophano, p. 8.) 

I would add that the artifact is not just the book but the handwriting itself, which is unique to the person who compiled the recipes and spent time recording her accumulated wisdom or other musings.  

Given the decline of handwriting in our current times, I have found myself wondering if we are in danger of losing these personal touches. As Theophano shows, women have been sharing recipes and cooking wisdom for centuries. Most still do today.* The instinct to share has never gone away, but the medium is changing. And what does that do to the marginalia Theophano mentions? 

Today’s personal food and recipe blogs, many of which are written by women, serve similar functions to the handwritten cookbooks and recipe collections Theophano found, providing their creators with a way to share their food traditions and favourite dishes while teaching techniques and skills. And while women today may not be using their blogs to “write themselves into being,” by including in the introductions to their posts the story of the recipe or an anecdote about what the recipe means to them or their family, they are crafting a type of memoir and building a culinary legacy. (Like women of yore, they also face criticism for daring to share their stories. Read the excellent post by Katharine McCain, cited in the endnotes, for more on that.**)

For the original writers of today’s online recipes, the preamble can replace the marginalia of the past, offering their notes on substitutions or the rationale for selecting certain ingredients or techniques. But what about the person passing it on? Where do handwritten adjustments, substitutions, and random notes fit in today’s world of online recipes, where favourites are often shared by link, not by an exchange of paper? What happens when there is no physical artifact, when the bond is based on something as transitory as a website, which can vanish or be forever altered with a few clicks of a mouse?

People still buy cookbooks, of course, and they may very well write notations in the margins for future generations to discover. But I’m thinking less of highly polished and curated cookbooks, and more of the recipe collections women create themselves, the equivalent of what I used to see as a child–a box with cards of handwritten recipes, or clippings from magazines or newspapers–hard copy that invites marginalia, the little notes that get shared whenever the recipe is copied and passed on. Those writings are evidence of what the person was thinking at the exact moment they were preparing a recipe or their reflections as they created a copy for sharing. Like the recipe collections themselves, they are highly personal and offer a tangible connection to the cook. 

I have great fondness for the marginalia Theophanos describes, and hope that this tradition of jottings and scribbles persists, despite much of life today being lived online.  

For the record, I’m in no way dismissing online food and recipe websites. After all, I’ve created one myself, as one way to preserve and share my own culinary legacy. And there are certainly benefits to online recipe collections, seen in their  limitless scope and ease of searching. But there’s a warmth and connection missing, one that handwriting and physical artifacts have in abundance. 

For me, fostering culinary bonds between generations means hard copy and handwritten notations. It means printing and preserving a recipe as something special or worthy of repeated use. Just like our moms and grandmas used to do. 

*More men are active in developing their own culinary legacy to share, but I am looking specifically at women and the continuity between the generations before us, who have a long history as keepers of culinary knowledge, and women today, many of whom still take on that role. 

**McCain writes of those who complain about women’s recipe preambles: “What’s said is ‘Shut up and give me the recipe’ but the meaning is clearly just, ‘Shut up.’ Quit talking, quit emoting, quit reminding me of your existence, even in the space you explicitly designed to express yourself in. That’s what people want, the fruits of women’s labor, in this case delicious recipes, without any hint that the women themselves exist.” Click through to Recipe or Shut the Fuck Up to read the whole article.)


Theophano, Janet. (2002) Eat My Words: Reading Women’s Lives through the Cookbooks They Wrote. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin.

Notebook image:  63991121 © Gmm2000 |

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *