A writer’s take on the enduring appeal of paper recipe cards in a digital age.

By Sarah Baird
September 18, 2019
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I’ve always been a big fan of “marginalia”—the scribbles and notes penned alongside the text in the white space of books that serve as tiny glimpses into the thoughts of the person who, prior to yourself, happened to be reading along. This is particularly true for cookbooks, where recipe additions or deletions, family culinary instructions (Uncle Levon refuses to eat this dish!) and hastily noted memories filling up every nook and cranny around each recipe makes cooking feel so much more alive and teeming with not only measurements and baking times, but stories.

This love for marginalia and the handwritten word might explain, then, why I’ve long remained committed to using recipe cards. A decade ago, it still felt like a novelty to haul your laptop into the kitchen and make it every bit as much a part of the meal as sheet pans and spatulas. At the time, seeking out the latest fan favorite recipe from food bloggers or the most enticing photo discovered via Tastespotting was, well, pretty new. Today, though, it would seem silly to think that most of our recipes don’t have digital origins: a tablet in every kitchen and a chicken in every pot.

But for me, it’s recipe cards—the old-fashioned, handwritten and, yes, paper means of writing down and storing a single recipe—that still make the most consistent allies in the kitchen. Nostalgia aside, there’s something inherently simple about pulling out a recipe card to make a dish: There’s nothing taking up necessary counter space by having to perch your laptop next to the stove, or a recipe stalling out because your hands are covered in flour and you can’t properly scroll the iPhone. Instead, on a simple, compact notecard (potentially decorated with a floral pattern, potentially plain—you do you) everything you need to make the dish is right there: no accidentally logging out or text messages interrupting the recipe flow.

It’s also an ideal way to share recipes. Collecting recipe cards for loved ones when they approach a time of change or transition—going off to college, moving into a first solo apartment—is a thoughtful way to let them know that their friends and family are there for sustenance and support every step of the way. (It’s also a fantastic wedding gift if you’re less than thrilled about shelling out $100 for that crystal pitcher from the registry that will never be used.) Because whether I’m looking at the recipe card for frozen cherry salad penned in my great-grandmother’s flawless cursive, or the stuffed peppers an old college friend swore by, there’s a connection. This meal brought pleasure before—so much so that it was shared with me!—and it will again, thanks to this little piece of paper.

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