Best Homemade Gift Ever

by Stacey Jaros

Noni, my Mom's mother, was an excellent cook and hostess. She was an artist in the kitchen who enjoyed trying new things and had a very good understanding of basic techniques.

Noni's reputation for being a good cook was agreed upon by everyone who tasted her cooking. I think she knew was skilled and was also happiest enjoying the company of loved ones over a good meal.

Noni's personal cookbook library was impressive. She frequently received food themed gifts (including cookbooks, gadgets, and years of subscriptions of Gourmet, Bon Appétit, and Cooking Light). Cookbooks overflowed the kitchen and took up some room in the den. In a guest room closet was an entire wicker hamper filled with loose recipes. Not the best organizational technique, admittedly, but all of that was secondary to "The Red Box."

As far back as I can remember next to or above Noni's stove rested a small, misshapen, plastic recipe box.

The Red Box as it appears today.

The Red Box as it appears today.

It was overstuffed with recipes, it had long ago lost it's lid (whether from wear or un-usefulness), and it had signs of heat damage from literally not being able to stand the heat in the kitchen. The box contained proper recipe cards, hand-written or typed pieces of paper, and a few pages torn from magazines. This collection included instructions for Holiday must-haves, favorites of close loved ones, and frequently requested items. The inventory changed a bit as new favorites world replace things that fell out of favor. But Lemon Meringue Pie and Angel Biscuits earned permanent tenancy.

When Noni left this world, and her belongings were distributed to loved ones, my mom and her siblings each brought home some of Noni's most iconic belongings. For reasons known only to my Mom, Aunt Bet, and their brother, Uncle Butch, the Red Box went home with Aunt Bet.

Throughout the years since Noni passed the red box has been consulted during meal planning for most family gatherings. On more than one occasion my uncle, Aunt Betty's husband, requested "anything from the red box" be prepared for his birthday meal. I've certainly called Aunt Bet to ask for a specific recipe I wanted to prepare. As time passed a few select recipes found their way into the collection. It could be considered a corruption of Noni's collection but I think she would approve of the additions. I know the red box is not a living creature but family gatherings continue to happen and celebrating the legacy of good times passed feels like the right way to honor our ancestors.

Which brings me to Thanksgiving weekend 2011. Close family, with whom I usually exchange Christmas gifts, decided we'd all make homemade gifts to exchange. It's an idea we try every couple years theoretically to reduce the commercial aspect of the Holiday, and minimize the shopping stress associated with the Holidays. While I like the personal aspect of exchanging homemade gifts I allege it increases stress in those of us who aren't particularly skilled at making things.

Regardless, the edict was handed down and since I hadn't started shopping for any of them yet I agreed. I'm so glad I did. I made two items for each recipient that stretched my repertoire and I was satisfied with the outcome.

The winner of the exchange, not that it's a competition, but her gift was so good it demanded the title of winner, was my Mom's younger sister, my Aunt Bet.

My Mom brought the gifts for the homemade exchange to my house for Christmas. Upon opening the gift from Aunt Bet I discovered a pretty, pastel floral, box.

My yellow recipe box.

My yellow recipe box.

Inside the box, astonishingly re-created, were the contents of the red box. Aunt Bet had not merely re-typed the recipes for each of us, she had re-created them. She scanned them and printed them on luscious card stock. It's a beautiful collection but the most amazing thing is that the recipes appear just as Noni had them. They're in Noni's handwriting. They have the same spots from battle-earned spills.

My "new" recipe cards.

My "new" recipe cards.

I pretty much burst into tears when I realized what the box actually is. She re-created Noni's Red Box for each of us.

I spent much of my post-turkey and wine sleepy evening combing through the box; reading Noni's handwritten notes; reminiscing over particular dishes from particular gatherings. I couldn't wait to make all the things. I noted the contents were heavy on casseroles and baked goods. Two items I don't happen to cook very often.

Pretty much before I knew it Holiday season 2012 was rolling around. My in-laws hosted Thanksgiving. They asked me to bring Angel Biscuits. Even though I've had the Angel Biscuit recipe since I liven in my first apartment, I reached for the red box (even though my personal version is a beautiful floral it is still known as The Red Box). As I did so I realized that was the first time I'd gone to the box since I perched it on the shelf. I immediately felt awful I'd never consulted the box since I'd received it. Once my initial disappointment passed I decided what needed to be done was cook my way through the box - to cook my way through the box and share it with you here.