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Cooking Provenance

January 16, 2012

I don’t really think about cooking from scratch much, because that is how I learned to cook.  That’s how everyone cooked, although the modern world crept in with my mom working and trading recipes with her cohorts at the Grange potlucks.  What working mom doesn’t want a quick casserole recipe made with a can of soup and other canned ingredients.  The Grange organization celebrated their centennial in 1967, and my dad had died the previous year, so my mom joined up for something to do in her spare time (???)…bring on the casseroles, no one called them comfort food then, although they were comforting, to the cook and the kid.

The other day I was looking at the roasted chicken I had in the fridge, and thinking, “Gee, should I climb out of the chicken enchilada rut and  make something else?”  When you know your way around cooking, a recipe is but a suggestion for some dishes.  I was hankering for some comfort food myself, and the tuna casserole with celery, cream of mushroom soup and chinese noodles came to mind.  I rummaged through my mom’s grange cookbooks and pulled out the Meat edition from 1968.  These grange cookbooks have never let me down for  home cooking.  All the recipes are from grange women who were serious cooks, some recipes are old, some new-fangled, well, at least for the 60’s, and I love the contributors name and grange posted at the bottom of each recipe.  What I was wanting was a taste of nostalgia and some seasoning ideas, I wasn’t really interested in a tuna casserole, since  I don’t have tuna, celery or commercial soup in my pantry, but I did have some crispy Chinese noodles.  I’m weak, I admit it 😉  And I had frozen sautéed chanterelles, celery root with crunchy tops, and the makings of a good béchamel, I figured the chicken could certainly stand in for Charlie.

I think I realized when I opened up the cookbook and a recipe written in my mom’s hand fell out, that the comfort of comfort foods stems from the memories of a meal and the cook as much as the meal itself.  My mom’s recipe had no title and was written how a scratch cook writes up a recipe.  Just ingredients with a few side notes.  Cut up 4# rabbit, 4 onions, 1/3 c vinegar, pickling spice, basil, sauterne wine, flour, butter, parsnips, carrots.  Place rabbit pieces in bowl with first four ingredients, add enuf water.  Marinate 2 days.  Dry rabbit, dredge, brown, arrange vegetables in bottom of dish, add rabbit, and 6 T of marinade.  Bake in slow ovenMarie

I used to raise rabbits for 4-H and we ate this often in the winter when the parsnips were plentiful.  I never saw her with a recipe, and reading this I can see it came from the local Guernsey breeder, Marie.

I don’t know about you, but when I see a handwritten recipe, it has meaning beyond more than just a list of ingredients and the instructions to go with the list.  I quickly dug out my bunch of recipes that I keep separate.  It’s not because I use them frequently, but more because they are mostly handwritten recipes that have been given to me.  A gift.  A gift in this day of cursors, email and Epicurious.  I love Simply Recipes and other recipe sites in that they give me inspiration, but it’s not the same.  They don’t call it your signature for nothing, IT IS a person’s whole being that I see when I look at their handwriting.  I see our friendship, their skills and life leanings, I see relationships and I remember them instantly when I see the script.  Is cursive dead?  I hope not.

Looking through my recipe gifts, I see my neighbor who shared her granola recipe from the Shaker school in Ohio, she missed home,  the recipe was a connection after moving to west to Oregon with her husband.

I see a newly minted farming friend who shared a chicken recipe with me, she later was murdered on her farm by her own child.  We knew we were going to be fast friends when the first things she asked on a farm visit were, “Where is your milk cow?”  “Do you quilt?”

Some people have passed on in a more normal way, Mary my staunch, and sometimes silly neighbor gave me her roll recipe.  She and her husband performed the marches at Grange meetings in a way that made you want to march alongside.  She shared that being the oldest daughter in a large farm family at the turn of the century meant you always had to cook, clean and tend to the youngers.  My girlfriend and I would ride horseback to her house and snag a roll, and she would be wistful remembering wanting to ride the plow horses to the fields like her little sisters did.  One of the original blue hairs, I never saw her in slacks – ever.  Always a dress and an apron, something on the cookstove, and a quilt in the frame.

Some people just pass out of your life too, a co-worker doled out her French Dressing recipe sparingly.  I was glad to be a recipient.  She was Mormon and worked in the cafeteria, and she saved gallon jars and containers for me – which always brought on curious looks from those around us.  We both spoke pantry, it may as well have been a foreign language.

And there are recipes from the current people in my life too.  A Kahlua recipe from Hangdog written in his distinctive hand.  And my go to roll recipe from a friend I see only occasionally when we buy straw.  It’s not my roll recipe, it is Joan’s Rolls and I use it for everything roll related, and we all remember visits with Joan and her family when I use this recipe.

Cooking is a blend of old and new, tried and true, and spans decades of experience in each recipe that is passed down or shared with friends.  The tips each cook imparts is the passing of the torch so to speak that spans time and connects us all.  And I know even the ladies from another time would have been glad to have the world of recipes at their finger tips if that had been available to them.  I like the internet too, but I love my handwritten recipes, they are comforting.

26 Comments leave one →
  1. raro permalink
    January 16, 2012 2:33 pm

    love this post, thank you.

  2. michelle permalink
    January 16, 2012 3:03 pm

    Oh so true… our family recently lost two of the family matrons and we sat down at thanksgiving and went through their recipes. The mother’s were hand written, both hers and gifted to her, while her daughter’s were all printed from the internet. Both good recipes, but the ones that are hand written make you think about where that recipe has been, when it was used, for what event or gathering. I felt very lucky to receive some of these recipes that I will definitely keep to pass on to my girls.

  3. Rita permalink
    January 16, 2012 3:23 pm

    My cards are in my grandmother’s, mother’s and my own hand. The recipe books contain notes telling when I first made an item, who liked it, which kid didn’t, changes etc. The clinkers are x-ed out so I don’t make that mistake again. Funny, sometimes I come across a recipe we all liked with a notation that I’d made it some time in the 80’s and never again–30 years? How can that have been 30 years ago? I have some new books inspired by my daughter-in-law, an excellent cook. I still have lots to learn. Thanks for the post.

  4. January 16, 2012 4:13 pm

    My daughters and I love reading cookbooks just for pleasure on winter nights. I have acquired a great cookbook library from thrift stores over the years. My favorites are vintage “farmwife” cookbooks, and I am always especially delighted to find a handwritten recipe card tucked inside.

  5. January 16, 2012 4:21 pm

    We had a kitchen fire some years ago and Iost most of my cook books, but not my “own” recipes. I saved a notebook I’ve compiled of recipes I use all the time and all the handmedown recipes, plus one all purpose cookbook that was my Aunt’s. Other than that I use the internet if I’m trying to think of what to cook or how to cook it.

  6. January 16, 2012 4:30 pm

    I loved this post. I always try to hand write my recipes down for my daughters (comfort food). I have several vintage cookbooks too. Now you should put those recipes down so we can see them too.
    Thanks so much for sharing.

  7. January 16, 2012 4:34 pm

    I think my hubby learned from scratch. I didn’t learn until I married him, so I tend to be a recipe person. But I am slowly learning (after 30+ years of marriage) to try to think ‘outside the box’, so to speak.

    I loved your post, Matron. 🙂

  8. January 16, 2012 6:09 pm

    For our wedding shower, my soon-to-be inlaws threw us a surprise “Kitchen & Garden Party”, where all the guests were asked to bring two of their favorite family recipes, and a division of a plant or some bulbs (this was in the spring) from their yard that had a story to them. I have the Lemon Jiffy recipe of a great-great aunt that my husband never got to meet, and King Edward Tulips that had grown in my great grandmother in-law’s yard.

    I’ll take that over a toaster or a vase any day. 🙂

  9. Susan permalink
    January 16, 2012 6:29 pm

    You’ve made me wax sentimental with my own recipe collection! 34 years ago, one of my cousins threw a wedding shower for me and invited all the women from 4 generations of my father’s family, spreading out as far as second cousins once removed. I was given a sweet little recipe box, and every attendee had received a recipe card inside their invitation. They each brought back their card, filled out with their best recipes, so that I could start married life. Loved it then, but it’s even more important now, so many years later, to be able to look up Grandma’s English Bread Sauce, Aunt Percy’s Cranberry Ice, second cousin Sharon’s Beach Picnic Baked Beans…..

    I’ve adjusted many of the recipes to work with my home-grown ingredients, but the heart of the matter is the feeling of connectedness and love I get when remembering each family cook, so many of them gone now or living far, far away.

  10. Lisa permalink
    January 16, 2012 7:12 pm

    What a great post! I too, set aside those handwritten recipes. Some, like my husband’s grandfather’s peanut brittle, I’ve never made; but I wouldn’t dream of tossing that bit of pencil scrawl on a browned piece of lined paper. On the other hand my great-aunt Edna’s “Role” recipe is one I often use. The eccentric spelling and penmanship on that index card conjure up my relative better than any snapshot. Thank you for so eloquently expressing the importance of provenance in the kitchen.

  11. Tami permalink
    January 16, 2012 7:46 pm

    LOVE this post! I actually have a recipe card framed in my kitchen. It’s a recipe that my mom had written down for her cinnamon rolls, it is old and brown and faded and I love it. The funniest thing about it is, while it is for cinnamon rolls, there is no mention of cinnamon nor are there any real directions on the card, she just knew. It is very special to me because it represents her in a way nothing else could.

  12. brenda from ar permalink
    January 16, 2012 8:07 pm

    This is wonderful. And a little sad for me. On a visit to my Grandmother’s, she asked me to go through her recipe box and take whatever I wanted, and she did the same with a box of photos. I couldn’t take much because of the thought of what giving it away meant – something I wasn’t willing to face. I did copy recipes in my own hand until my fingers hurt. I so regret not just going with it, and taking big piles from both boxes (before that option was gone).

  13. January 16, 2012 9:04 pm

    I picked up a Betty Crocker cookbook back in 1985, when I got out of the Navy and finished college. Then I got the new one (for then) in 1992. What I use, though, is Mom’s old Ladies Home Journal cookbook. The 1959 edition. For several years, she listed what she took to the big Christmas family gathering — in 1965 it was 11 pounds ham, pumpkin pie, etc.

    Mom gave it to me around 1990. It has a couple of hand-written recipe cards in it she gave me. 45 years ago, Mom was a dab hand with a prized brownie and brownie frosting recipe. Those two cars are treasures, inserted among the pages of the LHJ cookbook. Another is one I copied onto note paper, from a phone call — for a chocolate and vanilla wafer crumbled refrigerator cookie. That gets better over several days, if they are still around that long.

    About then Mom and Dad discovered an Iowa version of a way to marinade sirloin — 1 c. soy sauce, 1/2 c. brown sugar, 1/4 c. salad or corn oil, 1 T. minced onion, 1 tsp minced garlic. Marinade in the refrigerator overnight, turning a couple of times and stirring the marinade. Grill or broil, it takes very good and tender.

    Thanks for the memories!

  14. January 17, 2012 3:53 am

    I used to have a lot of hand written recipes. But when I started teaching my son to cook when he was 7, I had to convert everything to print and protect it. He could not read handwriting. The recipes now are in 3 huge 3 ring binders, each with a sheet protector. They can be taken out and hung from the tiny bulletin board in the kitchen for easy and safe reference.

    I still have my m-i-l’s Good Housekeeping book, with a few of her written ones on the fly leaves.

    Every now and then I come across something my grandmother wrote (usually not a recipe, she wasn’t a great cook) and it brings me back.

    For the tuna casserole, I don’t even use the cream of mushroom soup, making the white sauce and adding mushrooms, as does my son. Our version had potato chips crushed on top. We added cheese to the sauce for more protein. Celery is not a hit here, so I make my own celery salt (and onion powder) and use that.

    Tuna Casserole

    2 cans tuna
    1 can mushrooms
    2 cups frozen peas, cooked
    1½ cups milk
    3 tbsp. butter
    3 tbsp. millet flour
    2 oz. cheese, grated
    2 tsp. celery salt
    ½ tsp. paprika
    1½ tsp. onion powder
    brown rice elbows
    crushed potato chips

    Heat butter in a double boiler and stir in flour. When heated, slowly stir in milk until smooth. Cook the elbows in large pot until done, and drain. Cook peas and drain.

    When sauce thickens, add cheese and stir until melted. Add all seasonings and mix well. Stir in tuna and mushrooms, mixing all well. In a large bowl mix elbows, peas and sauce together well, sprinkle on potato chips, and serve.

    I loved reading the stories behind the recipes. What a rich life you have, embroidered with such memories.

  15. Barry Brown permalink
    January 17, 2012 4:12 am

    Thank you for your wonderful memories. I am in my early sixties and reading your blog brought back memories from my early childhood, going home on Sunday evening after church with my great-grandmother Lulu, who would gather the firewood from her woodshed of the right sizes and kinds for bread baking early the next day. I would get up early to watch(and I thought help)her light the fire in her wood range and begin what looked to me look a magical process – making bread. A domestic sacrament.

    Great-grandmother left my late mother her recipes, but they are a little difficult to use as there are such measurements as pitches and dabs! She was a cheerful person even though she became a widow at an early age with four children – my grandfather dropped out of high school to help keep the farm going, then years later his wife died and my great-grandmother helped raise yet another generation. People may make fun of Calvinists for their adherence to rules but my Swiss-French forebears had the starch to bear awful burdens with grace and still manage to help other people in their time of need. Bread baked at home is more than just bread, much love and care goes into it.

  16. January 17, 2012 4:21 am

    I literally JUST wrote in all the recipes that I had blogged — as it’s not the same if I don’t have them in my recipe books. I love knowing that this recipe or that recipe came from this person. And… holy cow I just realized that there are several recipes that no one other than my grandmother knows. I need to change that…

    Also, food brings people together. What friend have you not fed? I think of people and I think of what I want to cook for and with them.

  17. Janice permalink
    January 17, 2012 8:08 am

    Those hand written recipe cards are priceless! My late husband (he died at age 40 of cancer) loved to cook, he had written many recipes down on cards. When I used those recipes I am always reminded of what a wonderful husband he was and our way too short life together.

  18. January 17, 2012 6:55 pm

    I was cleaning out my recipe box just a few days ago. I could not bring myself to throw away recipes from friends, even if it was for something I have never made and probably never will. There are a lot of memories in that box. This post put a lot of those sentiments into words (and gave me permission to keep those recipes!).

  19. jenj permalink
    January 18, 2012 6:20 am

    I’m glad this post brings back fond memories for so many readers. For me, it’s sad because the women in my family aren’t close, and those that are don’t cook much. Hearing everyone else’s beautiful stories about their recipes and history makes me realize what I, and probably many other women in the US, are missing out on.

    I do have a few xeroxed recipes from my paternal great-grandmother (I have a cousin who salvaged them when she passed away), and my mother has given me a few (typed, on a typewriter) recipes that she likes. These days, most of our recipes come from online sources and then we substitute based on what’s in the pantry. Not very exciting for sure.

  20. Racquel permalink
    January 18, 2012 6:25 am

    As always a wonderful post but this is such a great link to our past and who we are. In my family life was lived around the table. We learned to cook very young so Mom could teach piano and voice lessons right up until dinner was served. She could direct music and the kitchen all at the same time. My father was the one who was known for his cooking. He is gone now and Mom is 91. All 10 of us kids love cooking and especially preparing food together. It’s a social event.
    The best gift we ever recieved was a cook book compiled by a s-i-l for us and transcribed as my Father said it. It’s like hearing him talk about what he is making. Added into the recipe book is My fathers family/food history. There are even some great pictures of his parents, grandparents, and of him, around the kitchen and table. She also included my fathers memories of learning to cook and what he remembers of his Mother (a saint to us) in the kitchen and where she purchased this or that. Then each of his 10 children telling memories from our childhood that had something to do with food and family. Now my children have copied the book (It’s loose leaf style so it’s easy to take it to the printer) and they also love it. It is a store house of recipes but also an amazing link to their roots.

  21. Wendy permalink
    January 18, 2012 8:59 am

    oh please please post those recipes you mentioned. I assure you they will be honored and credit given every time they are enjoyed!

  22. January 18, 2012 9:41 am

    I also love when friends share their exquisite produce and cooking ideas. Such as making green salsa from tomatillos, soup with celery root, and roasting hulless pumpkin seeds. Thank you! Another question: do you make your own tortillas?

  23. Shirley W. permalink
    January 19, 2012 9:38 am

    When my son was getting married I bought two of those recipe notebooks that you can pick up at Costco or Barnes and Noble. (Needed two note books to get enough pretty pages) I handed out the pretty recipe pages to friends, family and church friends and collected recipes for the newly weds. It was one of their most treasured gifts.

  24. greenhorn permalink
    January 19, 2012 12:05 pm

    Ohmy, this has me crying. I love my recipe card file from friends and family and acquaintance. All written in their handwriting or scrawled by me on a napkin while taking the dictation of a fellow home cook who happens into my path while sitting at a countertop. I read cookbooks in bed and love to find family-published cookbooks and jr league cookbooks in used bookstores. Although finding a family-published cookbook with notes scrawled in unfamiliar handwriting will make me cry too! Thank you Moh. 🙂

  25. January 21, 2012 1:11 pm

    Loved this post. So much soul in it.

  26. Britt permalink
    January 23, 2012 11:52 am

    Loved reading this.

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