While designing RLM’s new culinary history initiative, Susan got to thinking about all the recipes, utensils, kitchen tools, and books in her house that remind her of old family memories. Read on to discover how she keeps the past alive—through food!
Growing up, Christmas wasn’t Christmas without my mother’s homemade cranberry bread. I came across the recipe for it recently, and was almost just starstruck, because it was such a classic. The recipe itself has grown dark and stained—not just from age, but frequent use. It was so clearly a document of our family, imparting ingredients and instructions and speaking to years of loving use.
After finding it, I started thinking about recipes—not the prepared foods, but the actual tattered and stained one-of-a-kind handwritten index cards and random pieces of paper on which special meals are recorded. To me, they’re evidence of the sustenance and traditions of a family, and are just as important as the meals themselves.
In the ’90s, my sisters, brother, and I began to appreciate family recipes as the documents they are. Recipes from our mother’s or grandmother’s generation offer a glimpse into their lives, personalities, and habits. For instance, because one of the recipes was cut out of a magazine, I know my grandmother read Women’s Home Companion in 1933. Some recipes have spelling mistakes—I’ve never seen “sandwitches” before—and others list ingredients that I don’t think are sold these days, like cream corn starch. The details of a recipe can be a gold mine: its handwriting, paper, how someone chose to phrase things; those all give you a small window into someone’s life. It’s so unique, and there’s simply no substitute for it.
The classic recipes our mother would make were from a file of recipes she collected called Cooking Clips, and her copy of The Joy of Cooking. (Neither were built for the kind of industrial use my mother put them through, and ended their lives with bindings broken and pages missing.) My mother started cooking in earnest when she was a new bride, in the mid-1950s. Most recipes in Cooking Clips were written using a particular fountain pen with blue ink—that was her signature. We know that she, also, had an appreciation of family recipes because until the end of her life she kept her recipe card file from her high school Home Ec class (!). The wooden box shows her maiden name and little drawings; the recipes themselves, for some reason, are mostly in her mother’s handwriting. This makes them incredibly precious to us because of her death when my mother was only nine years old.
One of my grandmother’s recipes that I tend to go back to is date bars, and the truth is that if it had come from anyone else, it wouldn’t be one of my favorites. But it’s less about their taste and more about knowing that she used the same recipe to make them. She followed the same steps as I do, and used the same ingredients. Making the date bars is a way to feel connected to a woman who I love, but never knew.
So many of the old family recipes were valuable to me and my siblings. The desire we had to share them with each other led to the creation of a family recipe book.
Aside from the recipes themselves, I have an assortment of utensils, dishware, kitchen tools and cookbooks that belonged to people from my family. There’s my grandmother’s Sunbeam egg cooker from when she was first married; her knife sharpening rod (more often used by her as a gardening tool); her pig cutting board (yes, a pig cutting board), and her 1917 copy of Newlywed Cookbook. When my Aunt Dorothy passed away, I was gifted her set of silver flatware. My mother’s old electric skillet works wonders simmering stuffing every Thanksgiving. It’s a priority for me, on holidays, to prepare and serve meals using pieces that had a life before they landed in my kitchen. They connect me to my family’s past, whether I have memories of them or not. The objects themselves hold onto history.
But back to the recipes. Shared meals, over the years, can be the foundation of a family, yet for all their importance, they’re ephemeral. What does last are the recipes themselves, those meals recorded in measured handwriting, on an old-fashioned typewriter or homespun “From the Kitchen of” index card.
While many of today’s recipes are found online, once printed and used in the kitchen they develop their own unique histories, with the cook’s added handwritten info and splatters from ingredients. In the future, I can definitely see special email exchanges and online recipes being printed out and collected for books preserving our favorite family meals. While both technology and cooking trends evolve, I know for a fact that the desire to showcase memories will endure.