Sunday, December 23, 2018

Recipe Detective Work

Recently, my mother-in-law gifted me with a metal-bound notebook Balanced Recipes by Pillsbury, copyright 1933 that was her mother's. In it, were a handful of handwritten recipes. I immediately checked with my husband, to make sure she knew that they were in there before she gave them to me; she did, and thought I would like to have them. I feel very fortunate to be so well-understood.

Most of the recipes appear to be in the same handwriting, which if you're looking at a collection, makes it easier to guess that they're from the same hand. (This is not always the case! My mother and grandmother's handwriting is so similar as to be indistinguishable. Even Mom can barely tell her own writing from her mother's.) But one of the things that stood out from this recipe was its age: the paper (card, actually) is considerably more yellow than the other slips, and the hand is much heavier, so it's very distinct. Written on a postcard, half the postcard is a recipe, and the other half is a treasure of family clues that tells me exactly who wrote the postcard.

The writer left me a lovely trail of breadcrumbs to follow. I knew already to whom it was addressed, Mrs. Don P., and it was in the possession of that woman's daughter-in-law, Wanda.

Here's a run-down of everything I have found in this postcard:
• "Dear Mildred" is Mrs. Mildred P., Don P.'s wife.
• "Mother" is Olive P., wife of Henry P.
• "Hattie" is Hattie P., the writer's sister, and Mildred's sister-in-law.
• The card mentions "Artificial Leg Co." "F is getting a fitting hope it's a good one." "F" is Floyd W. who lost a leg from cancer (this information came to me through genealogy notes that were collected years before I met my husband).
• "Hope Wanda & Baby are OK" Wanda is Mildred's daughter-in-law, and the baby in question is Wanda's daughter, and my mother-in-law! (I know this because of the date of the stamp cancellation.)
• "Warren" is almost certainly C. Warren P., who died not long after the postcard was written. He was the nephew of the writer.
• "Lu + F" is Lucy and Floyd W., my postcard writer and her husband, the sister-in-law of addressee.

I haven't been able to puzzle out "Stacy" yet (will have to ask family about that one), and will continue to sift through my notes for who he is (the card says "he's getting better" – since Stacy is an uncommon man's name, that should help me find him).

It's a chatty little note, for all its brevity. Lots of family members are mentioned, and it's all those clues that confirm who wrote the recipe. I have her in my genealogy program as "Lucy" not "Lu" – but if she has signed the card "Lu," maybe that's what everyone called her.

I hope this inspires you to look into your family's recipe collections and look at them with new eyes. I have a 67 year old recipe sitting on my desk, and a woman who has been gone from this earth for 35 years, long before I met my husband and married into her extended family, is telling me pieces of her family history. That's kind of magical. That's one of the things that fills me with wonder. I hope it does you, too.

Happy Holidays, everyone! Enjoy those fabulous food traditions, or make new ones if the old ones just won't work anymore. Traditions have to start somewhere, after all.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

My Grandmothers' Collections

I am incredibly fortunate. I have in my possession the recipe collections from both my grandmothers. But while my father's mother's recipe box was stuffed so full the lid would not close, and it was damaging the contents to try to remove anything, my mother's mother's collection is much slimmer. Why?

This is a question that I happen to know the answer to, but I'll get to that. When you run across something like this as you compile your family cookbook, it's worth it to ask why. If something seems odd, it probably is. If you see a notation on a recipe card "from the kitchen of ___" and don't recognize the name, ask; the person may turn out to be your grandmother's bestie, or it might go deeper yet. If you find three different recipes for sugar cookies, all worn, and don't know why three, ask; there's probably a reason for that, too.*

My point is, don't just blindly accept the collection in front of you. Look at it like a historian – because that's what you are now. You are your family's food historian. Take in every date, every place name on every hastily-written recipe from the bank notepad or deposit slip, read the letters (if you're luck enough to find those in the collection), take it all in. Make notes, make scans, make copies and back them up. It's a ton of work, but someday, someone will thank you for it.

On the left, my maternal grandmother's small recipe binder;
on the right, my paternal grandmother's recipe box that won't close.
One represents a lifetime, one represents a collection that was started
in middle-age, when her children were already grown.

As for my mom's mom? When I was very small, they had a house fire. Whatever recipes she had from her mother were lost. The recipe collection I have from her now is no older than the early 1970s. Missing out on that older stuff stings, but knowing why it's gone helps. It's also a reminder to younger cooks to go and meet with your grandparents now, while you can. (By the time I married, only one of my grandparents was alive to see it, and she died later that year.) Or maybe you don't much cook yourself, but you have kids, or nieces and nephews, who are too young to appreciate the resource that their grandparents are – go, ask the questions, get the recipes, collect the stories. Before they're lost forever.

My book with more advice like this is available at (If you buy a used copy, make sure it's the Updated Edition – the previous edition is out of date with regards to publishing.)
*In my family there are in fact, three Very Important Sugar Cookie recipes, and all of them are The Best. All of them were from someone's grandmother, and there's someone willing to die on that sweet hill over each of them.