Long before we had the Food Network, The Chew, and a variety of celebrity bakers, chefs, and cooks sharing recipes with us, we had the good old-fashioned “can I have the recipe?” method of collecting lists of ingredients and instructions on how to make good things to eat. Most of those conversations were held among women. As a result, other generations of people have had a chance to enjoy creating food from their childhoods and from the “old folks’.
Times have changed and now women and men both freely converse about favorite recipes, print them from websites and share their cooking skills with others. Cooking is big business! But, remember, women started this practice and were connecting with each other long before the term social networking was created.
Eight years ago I gathered my mom’s handwritten collection of recipes and organized them in a database which created pages of recipes for a family cookbook. My mom’s recipes were written on a varied assortment of small cards, large cards, and different sizes of paper. Some of the original recipes were written in cursive (something students today aren’t really learning), some were typed, and often the paper was yellow or spotted with a splash of some ingredient which never made it to the table. One of the recipes dates back to the mid-1800s and was for my father’s favorite chocolate cake. This old recipe has directions which say to bake in moderately heated oven. Knowing that the family cookbook would be used by some who are not necessarily cooking experts, my version of the recipe included sharing the valuable information that in today’s language, that would mean 350 degrees. Recipes calling for oleo were amended to say butter or margarine. My millennial generation son and his cousins would have little or no idea what oleo is. My mother couldn’t believe it, until she queried a few of her grandchildren who gave her puzzled looks when she mentioned oleo. It was good to do this with my mom because she had her own filing system and it is not one anyone else would be able to figure out. All those good recipes were at risk of getting lost in a drawer or cabinet over the years. I put the picture of her from her 80th birthday on the cover and named her Super Chef June. It is a little family joke, since she was known for many wonderful things, but being a chef was not one of them. However, she could collect good recipes and cook from them!
The family cookbook was expanded to include favorite recipes from my siblings and their families, along with those from my husband’s family. It became a popular item. We discovered it was popular even with women outside the family, as well as with family members’ girlfriends who have since moved on. One of them had even become really attached to the family cookbook and seemed to be more concerned about losing access to the family cookbook than she was in losing the guy.
Recipes are better than birthday and anniversary cards which usually get pitched into the trash a few days after the event passes. Recipes remind us of times and people in our lives. The family cookbook has:
Apple Surprise from my mom’s Methodist Church circle in Kansas in the 1960s,
Chicken Olivia from my Uncle Bill in New Mexico who cooked before cooking by men was considered to be OK.
The recipe my Aunt Mary Ann in Colorado shared for Chocolate Scotcherones which are supposed to be cookies, but taste more like candy bars. I no longer make them because they are so addictive!
My Kansas aunts provided an assortment of Jell-O salad recipes which were very popular in the 1950s and 1960s. Someone once told me that it was acceptable to consider Jell-O salad an ethnic food for Midwesterners. I ate so many of them growing up; I didn’t realize some people didn’t like Jell-O, or didn’t eat it regularly. Big surprise.
My Aunt Zoe gave the recipe for Chocolate Sheath Cake back in the 1960s. It is still a birthday must have for one of my brothers.
The all-time family favorite is barbecued brisket with Jane’s barbecue sauce. Jane was one of my mom’s friends and the sauce was a lot spicier than what was available in the store at the time. Slow cooked brisket and spicy sauce, perfect.
The first two recipes in the cookbook are for margaritas. One came from my sister-in-law and it is called Lovely Linda Lou’s margaritas. They are her specialty at their cabin on Lake of the Ozarks (Missouri). The other is one my husband perfected to replicate margaritas we loved from a Mexican restaurant in Yuma, Arizona, where we lived after we were first married. Both recipes have been used a lot! Different recipes, different memories.
The family cookbook is full, so my husband and I have branched out with another less organized, yet highly useful, notebook full of recipes collected more recently. Some of them are:
A Northern Italian Rice Salad with Shrimp came from my South Padre Island friend Susan. It is perfect for gulf shrimp (none of that farm raised stuff for island folks). It is my new go-to recipe and it can even be made with quinoa, the “in” food at the moment.
We collected a recipe for a Decadent Brownies which we first experienced at a Christmas open house given by our pastor and her husband. Later we made these truly decadent treats to serve at a tea for women which raised funds for a community volunteer activity.
There is a page with soup recipes from an elderly woman we met through my husband’s concierge services. Her homemade soups were delicious and even though she was in her late 80s, she kept making those soups.
There are too many recipes to mention them all, and too many to cook them all, but each family member has favorites. When recipes are assembled in one place, it provides many wonderful choices from loving and caring cooks in different parts of the country who were with us at different times in our lives. It really reads like a book and each family members sees the story though the lens of his or her life.
As I go through both cookbooks, I notice that so many of these cooks are no longer with us. Part of their legacy is shared through the recipes. Not only do these written recipes represent memories for my generation, but also for generations to come. In our family, our son guards his copy of the cookbook like a family treasure. My sister-in-law gets it out when she has company and makes out her shopping list for favorite recipes. That surprised me because she is such a wonderful cook with a whole bunch of other recipes of her own to choose from. As I browse through the cookbook looking for something special to make, I visualize past family gatherings, wonderful meals, lots of conversations, and deep-rooted memories of friends and extended family members.
Those women who some people thought were silly and not doing much when they were passing around recipes were really teaching us how to create a bond among generations. They have given us a gift which is useful, personal, and often full of memories. Pictures and greeting cards are nice, for the moment, but over the decades they tend to end up in the trash, or the pictures get put on discs so they can be accessed “someday”. Great recipes end up in the hands of cooks who create a dish or a meal-something which can be repeated and passed on by others.
I learned a lot about that chocolate cake recipe I mentioned that my father liked so much. It wasn’t just the cake that appealed to him. It was also the fact that because he and his brothers had been orphaned during the depression as young children, that cake had a bigger meaning to him that just something that is really delicious (and it is really delicious). He and one of his brothers were raised by their grandmother and she used to make that cake for them. It was also one the few tangible things he had to connect his family to himself. There were a few family pictures, very few memories of his parents, but he had that old family recipe for that chocolate cake.
Hooray for those social networking women back in the day that so wisely wrote those recipes down and made them part of their legacy to other generations! Oh I wonder how they would have felt about the Food Network, posting recipes on social media, and checking out the fancy markets we have today with so many food offerings they never experienced. I think they would have loved it– but of course they did it first and gave us something to remember them by. I thank them.