Food & Drink

Dirty Pages open to the good recipes

Kathleen Purvis’ recipes that belonged to her grandmother.
Kathleen Purvis’ recipes that belonged to her grandmother.

What is it about the recipes, people? What is it about the magic of those scribbled, spattered, splashed and faded lines?

When I wrote a column recently about finding an envelope of my grandmother’s recipes after my mother died, I was only expecting to share a moment of grace and a bit nostalgia. As I wrote in the column, the recipes weren’t anything special. I don’t know if they work, I don’t know if she even made them. They’re only special to me because they’re in my grandmother’s handwriting.

Then the calls started from people who begged for copies of the black fruitcake, candied grapefruit peel and the rest.

I don’t mind sharing. Sharing recipes is a part of what I do. But I marvel at the compulsion, the need to gather recipes, even recipes we will never make.

In the age of Google, when all you have to do is type “black fruitcake recipe” and get 816,000 results, why would anyone desperately desire a version my grandmother scribbled in the 1950s?

The value might not be the recipe, though. The craving may be in the scribbling. At a food-writing conference last weekend in Birmingham, Ala., a magazine editor from Nashville scurried over to tell me she had read my column and was thrilled, because of her own project.

Erin Murray, co-editor of Nashville Lifestyles, is working with two food writers, Jennifer Justus and Cindy Wall, to put together an exhibit they’re calling Dirty Pages.

Justus came up with the idea when she was looking on Facebook and saw a picture of a cookbook open to a sauce-splattered page. It reminded her of something someone had told her: “I always tell my daughters that when I go, they’ll know the good recipes by the dirty pages.”

So they embarked on Dirty Pages, an exhibit that combines pictures of cooks and the stories of their well-used recipes.

“Incredible stories have come out of it,” Murray says. “Every person we talk to says, ‘I have one of those.’”

One woman from Thomasville, Ga., has two copies of a vintage community cookbook, “Pines and Plantations.” She has her own, but she cooks from her grandmother’s because it has the notes her grandmother wrote in it.

When she cooks from it, she told Murray, “I can conjure her up. I can hear her telling me, ‘Don’t put too much water in that, you’ll drown it.’”

Used recipes are a special kind of heirloom, Murray says. They’re not like silver that only comes out at the holidays. They’re tactile, they’re daily, they’re who we really are.

Murray’s exhibit goes up March 18 at the Nashville Farmer’s Market. She hopes it will eventually find a permanent home at the Southern Food and Beverage Museum in New Orleans. There’s a website about it, at Be careful about that address – typing “dirty pages” on the Internet can make for an interesting morning, I can tell you.

But the name was important to them, Murray says. Because everyone who has ever cooked knows life is on the dirty page.

Purvis: 704-358-5236