Collections Update: The Big Grey Tower

by Chris Smith, Director of Collections, SoFAB

The newest exhibit at the Southern Food and Beverage Museum features a tower of recipes donated by a couple with a penchant for collecting and cataloguing recipes.
The tower, which stands almost six feet tall, features 22 grey drawers, or 11 drawers stacked side by side. The recipes are catalogued by food group. For example, Drawer 1 is dedicated to “chip dips and party goodies.” Drawer 10 focuses on shrimp. Drawer 14 is devoted to ethnic Italian, Slovak and Greek dishes.

The recipe horde is the gift of Rick and Monica Defenbaugh, formerly of Metairie, La., but now residents of a retirement community in Georgetown, Texas. They donated the tower when they made the move to Texas in the summer of 2009.

The collection represents a lifetime of culinary curiosity for the Defenbaughs and their daughters.

Both Rick and Monica were born in the mid-1940s, grew up in the 1950s and ‘60s, and had mothers they described as excellent cooks, though they didn’t teach either of them how to cook when they were young. Rick and Monica began their culinary adventures as young adults during their first marriages.

Monica grew up in West Virginia. She learned to cook primarily from her grandmothers, first generation immigrants – one from Romania and one from Czechoslovakia. Her mother influenced her too, although later.

Rick grew up in the American heartland, but worked as a waiter at the Texan Restaurant in Bryan, Texas, where he observed a professional restaurant kitchen in action. It was there that he developed an appreciation for good food that was well served.

Both moved to New Orleans where they would meet in 1975, and then marry in 1978. That’s when their adventures in cooking began.

“When we combined households (and recipe files), we shared the cooking duties,” the pair wrote in a letter to the museum describing the collection. “We strongly believe in a sit-down ‘family meal’ most evenings and required each of our two daughters (one from each of our first marriages), during their formative years, to cook the family meal once a week. As a result, both learned to cook, and had mastered a few well-rehearsed recipes when they left home for college.”

Family members routinely clipped recipes from the New Orleans Times-Picayune, magazines and cookbooks. Through the years, the collection of 4×6 recipe cards grew large enough to occupy several grey metal index card cabinets.

“Often, we stamped each recipe card with a rubber stamp to identify the magazine or cookbook that was the source of that particular recipe. Whenever we cooked a recipe for the first time, we marked the top edge of that recipe card with a red marker, to easily distinguish the previously prepared recipes from the ‘not-yet-cooked’ ones.”

The large recipe file allowed them to accumulate recipes they wanted to prepare in a convenient and organized manner, and to compare multiple recipes for the same or similar dishes. By comparing the ingredients and procedures from several recipes of the same dish, it became clear to the Defenbaughs which ingredients were key, which were optional or of lesser importance, and which procedures were simpler or efficient or suitable for their kitchen.

In 1993, the Defenbaughs began typing recipes into the computer to document favorite, routinely cooked, or family heirloom recipes. They printed the recipes and organized them into binders. In 16 years, the “Rick and Monica Cookbook” has morphed into 10 large ring binder notebooks and includes more than 1,000 recipes.

In 2002, the Defenbaughs discovered the internet and went on a recipe-printing binge. They discovered that they could print many more recipes than they could clip and they no longer needed the big recipe card file. They “mothballed” their 4×6 cards and began to store their recipes in their computer. They used the grey filing cabinets as an archive where they could find old favorites and heirloom recipes.

Eventually they decided they needed to find a home for the filing cabinets and the cards inside.

The Southern Food and Beverage Museum accepted the gift in July 2009 and it can be found on display in the Cookbook Corner of the museum.

To learn more about donating objects to the Southern Food and Beverage Museum, please learn more by visiting our site,


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One Response to “Collections Update: The Big Grey Tower”

  1. December 2009 | Southern Food and Beverage Museum Says:

    […] Collections Update: The Big Grey Tower […]

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