NPR Radio’s “Kitchen Window” series featured “Dog-Eared Cookbook Relays Mother-in-Law’s Love” recently, a wonderful radio essay about how the life of a mother continues after her death due to the heritage left behind in a cookbook.
A few days after Jan died, we went through her possessions, and there was her go-to cookbook, stained and dog-eared. The book is called Our Favorites … with Cocktails and Coffee. The spiral-bound book contains recipes from women in the Hadassah chapter she belonged to. It appears to have been printed in 1980, but it’s redolent of the 1950s, when many of the women would have been raising families and cooking dinner every night.
I felt as if I’d found the Holy Grail. The cookbook has a recipe for mandel bread — Yiddish for “almond bread.” That’s the Jewish version of biscotti, a twice-baked cookie named for the almonds mixed into the batter. I also found recipes for Jan’s excellent poppy seed cookies and her moist, flavorful honey cake. On Rosh Hashana, it is customary to eat sweets, particularly those made with honey, to symbolize the sweetness of the new year.
Just like researching your family’s history, going through cookbooks to discover the truth behind the family recipes is just as much a mystery to be solved as finding the last name of the woman who married your great-grandfather’s uncle.
The book is filled with notes in her Palmer-perfect handwriting, as well as alternate versions of recipes on slips of paper. But which version did she prefer? I had other questions: “Why did you change the oil quantity from one cup to half a cup in the mandel bread?” (Probably she’d answer, “Who needs all that oil?”) Why did you write “wash and drain” on the poppy seed recipe, then cross the words out? And then there were the missing elements — like a pan size for the honey cake. She most likely had a cake pan she’d always use, but that sure didn’t help me.
Through trial and error, and by consulting with other cooks, I solved some of the mysteries.
My father’s stepmother left behind only one cookbook that my father swears she adored and cooked plenty from. Yet as I turned the pages of the old club membership cookbook, I found not one bit of oil, flour, or even a turned down corner. Memories came rushing back as I recalled eating in restaurants and bringing food on our visits, or time spent outside eating the fruit off the cherry, apple, and plum trees that filled the yard. We had hamburgers and picnic food on our summer visits. Not “real food”. The cookies and treats she brought out for us kids was always dried store bought snacks, not a home cooked anything in site. I don’t recall ever seeing her cook and her kitchen always looked like the fanciest thing she ever prepared was coffee.
The story her cookbook tells is one of no cooking, but a purchase to support a local community group.
My husband’s grandmother, however, left behind a treasury of her favorite recipes. And just like Jan’s family, her daughter and two granddaughters are desperately trying to recreate their favorite dishes of hers, but something is missing. They keep at it, hoping to find whatever missing ingredient is missing, wanting to pass down the meals of their memories from grandmother’s grease stained, flour covered, dog-eared cookbooks.
A family cookbook is a treasure and well as a treasure hunt. Think about your own favorite cookbooks and the notes you leave within them that will be discovered after you’ve gone by your family, trying to recreate the magic you brought to the table. What kind of mystery are you leaving behind for them to solve? And what will they learn about you through the recipes you left behind?
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