Portland resident Jody Sleeper has set out an overstuffed notebook some 5 inches thick and so worn it’s hard to tell what color it once was. Blue? Gray? Brown? She’s moved it from its customary place among her cookbooks to the coffee table. The notebook holds more than 400 pages of yellowing recipes mostly clipped from newspapers and pasted onto faded lined paper; the New York Times, the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin figure prominently. There’s also the New Jersey Star-Ledger, the Virginian-Pilot, recipes from a bag of Indian Head cornmeal and more. Some of the recipes are traceable, but most have been cropped so neatly, their origin is a mystery.

The very first recipe – page 1, upper left-hand – is for Chinese Souffle; its ingredients – bread, paprika, eggs, cheddar cheese – don’t sound remotely Chinese. That same page offers instructions for brown bread, for cucumber-chive sauce, for Oatmeal Flummery… Open the notebook at random and its scope is either stunning – or random: “George Bush’s Mexican Mound” claims to be “the favorite dish of the Bush family” and calls for taco seasoning, 2 lbs. hamburger, 1 cup frozen avocado dip and black olives. Other pages reveal Foie Gras with Apple Charlottes, Tahitian Beef Brochettes, Buttered Whole Chestnuts, Frankfurters with Onions… There are thousands of recipes.

Sleeper, a longtime family friend of mine, took possession of the notebook after her mother, Audrey Adler, died, and Adler’s appraisals (“great,” “very good”) are sprinkled throughout. But the notebook was unmistakably a project and passion of Sleeper’s father’s, Avram Adler. Born in 1919, the child of Russian immigrants, he grew up fatherless and poor during the Depression. He married Audrey on his 33rd birthday, fathered three children – Jody among them – and had a long career as a lawyer in Philadelphia. He died in 1994.

What remains of us once we are gone? What do we leave behind? Does a book of recipes assembled faithfully and methodically over years hold more than recipes? In honor of Father’s Day, we asked Sleeper to tell us about her father’s recipe-clipping obsession, a pastime she says she never asked him about. “It was just something he did.”

Our conversation has been rearranged and edited for clarity and length.

Q: Tell me about this book.


A: It’s just a spiral notebook, and my father used it to save recipes for my mother. One of my strong memories of my father is him sitting at the kitchen table, going through newspapers – he used to get lots of newspapers – clipping out recipes he thought looked interesting that he wanted my mother to cook. But when you asked me about this book I remembered something that struck me – there were poultry recipes. My father never ate poultry. Isn’t that strange? He didn’t eat poultry until he started having heart trouble after his heart attack in 1985. But on page 3 there is something called chicken pâté loaf. My father would never eat that. The truth is my father was hardly ever home for dinner. He’d come home late. He’d sit and have Jewish rye bread and butter, cheeses, all kinds of cheeses, and tea. That was probably 10 or 11 at night.

Q: Did your father cook?

A: He made a very good Caesar salad, but that was literally the only thing he ever made.

Q: Did your Mom resent your dad telling her what to cook?

A: She was happy to oblige my father. He thought she was a good cook, and she liked that he thought she was a good cook. She liked to cook, too, but she liked pleasing him. This one is interesting – cranberry nut bread. She put a big X through it and wrote “Terrible!” Terrible! This is another interesting one: Broiled Shad Fillet with Roe. Mostly, all my father did was pick out the recipes for my mother. But in this one, my mother wrote “Try this: Poaching the roe before broiling.” That’s my mother’s writing. And he wrote – “Roe still raw.” And somebody Xed it out. I’m sure it was him. His handwriting is thicker and bolder. Hers definitely looks more spindly.

Q: When did he embark on this notebook?


A: Probably prior to 1971. I graduated from high school in 1974. He was definitely doing it before I left home. It was a hobby. My father liked food. He was a big fan of Craig Claiborne. I suspect he was always cutting out recipes. At some point he decided to put them in a notebook, to bring a little organization to it. Page 161 is Nov. 8, 1981, so that’s a span of it least 10 years. He did it for years and years and years. Which is part of the reason I wanted it. I knew it would remind me of him. OK, this one is really interesting – page 38. He numbered all the pages, up to a certain point. He numbered up to page 405 … 407 … 409. It looks like he stopped numbering at 410. He wasn’t quite at the end. Usually (my mother) would write ‘good’ or something like that. On page 38, Paddy’s Beef Pie, she wrote “marvelous.” And I thought, ‘Wait. I remember Paddy’s Beef Pie!’ But no recipes adhere to that page. But when I went to college, I made my own notebook. I hand-copied recipes into my notebook, so I went to look at that, and what did I copy? Paddy’s Beef Pie!

Q: Did you have to fight over the notebook; did your siblings want it?

A: Nobody voiced an interest. I got it after my mother died. I don’t think she would have given me it beforehand. She would have kept it. It would have been important for her to keep it.

Q: And do your own kids hope to inherit it?

A: I don’t think they even know about it. Manya was 8 when (my father) died. She’s the mostly likely to remember him. And Adam was 5 and Noah was 2.

Q: Did your mom continue to cook out of it after your father died?


A: I don’t think so. Maybe she had some favorites in there that she continued to cook? But she got really depressed after my father died. I don’t think she did a whole lot of cooking. She did occasionally invite people over and make a nice meal. She may have cooked from that book. Obviously, she saved it. I don’t think her children were particularly gratifying to cook for because we all had our schtick. She would make tuna ala king – I wouldn’t have anything to do with the tuna, and my brother wouldn’t have anything to do with the ala king.

Q: Do you cook these recipes yourself?

A: A lot of it isn’t the kind of food I cook. Although this one, I remember. It was stir-fried broccoli stems. I might make that – although it includes ¼ teaspoon monosodium glutamate. A lot of recipes seem very complicated. And I don’t cook that much meat. (My dad) used to talk about when he was a kid growing up his mother used to feed him and his brother cream because she thought it was healthier. He had his first heart attack when Manya was born. His brother died of a heart attack when he was only 48. (My dad) was vegetarian for a while. I think it was an ethical thing. He was religious. He never ate pork or shellfish. And we didn’t mix milk and meat until he decided the rabbis had interpreted (the kosher laws) wrong. There are no recipes for shellfish in this book. No. No. No.

Q: This seems such an unusual hobby for a man of his generation. I’d have thought the closest that most American dads at this time got to the kitchen was the backyard barbecue.

A: No grilling. No grilling. He fought in World War II. He enlisted three days after Pearl Harbor and fought to the end. He would not do anything outdoors. He did not picnic. We did not hike. He did not grill.

Q: What did he eat in the Marines?


A: They had rations. The breakfast portion had bacon in it, and the dinner portion had pork, and the lunch portion had cheese. So he would swap because he didn’t eat pork, so he could have cheese, cheese, cheese. When I was thinking about why I wanted this book, it was because it represented my father. I thought about the other things I wanted because they represented my father. (She holds up several items). This was when he was still alive, I asked him for these – the dress helmet and the pith helmet. To me, these also represented him. He was a person of some habits. The first thing I wanted when he died was his prayer book. Always the first thing he did in the morning, every morning, he said his prayers (She picks up a tiny, fragile, very well-used prayer book.)

Q: You took objects with no value, except to you.

A: Right, right. I haven’t even looked at (this recipe notebook) all that much. It was mostly a matter of I wanted it. I just wanted it.

Q: But clearly you cherish it.

A: Yes, I’m happy to have it. I’m really happy to have it.

Q: What’s the last thing in the notebook?

A: At the end is rather a grand inked “Finis” – underlined. Although underneath that flourish, is that a 1??! Maybe there was another notebook?


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