My great-grandmother Iva died of cancer before I was born. She was the daughter of Swedish immigrants who left the Great Plains during the Dust Bowl. They settled in Idaho, where Iva married my great-grandfather, and they lived in the same town their entire lives. Grandma Mom, as she was known, was beloved by all. By the time she had passed away, she had amassed both local fame and widespread adoration. Once she was gone, she was remembered through stories, and through her recipes.
I was probably eight or nine when my father enlisted my help in scanning copies of these recipe cards onto a computer. All of Grandma Mom’s children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, and other extended family members wanted her dessert recipes—and they wanted them in her handwriting. It was an elegant, spidery script, and for many of these heirs, the recipes were inseparable from her own hand. They didn’t just want the measurements, the directions, or the food itself—they wanted Grandma Mom. And so my father showed me how to scan each recipe into the computer, and from there, we categorized them by type: cakes, candy, cookies, fudge, and “other desserts.” Finally, we placed the recipes on discs, and handed them all out at the next family reunion.
I have all the recipes on my computer now. Whenever I look at them, I glimpse again the woman I never met: the woman who danced and sang through her kitchen, grew much of her own food in a large vegetable garden, butchered her own chickens for farmhouse lunches, and jotted down recipes on spare pieces of newspaper.
For much of human history, illiteracy and limited access to paper made recipe transcription rare. Recipe books were only affordable to the wealthy and aristocratic classes. Most recipes were handed down through oral history and kinesthetic learning: novice cooks learned at the side of their elders, both through instruction and mimicry. It was not until the 1800s that women began writing down their recipes. Many of these recipes were, as Food History News publisher Sandra Oliver once noted, “meant merely to jog the memory of making these dishes,” more so than to educate the reader on the entire craft of baking or cooking. At the turn of the twentieth century, however, scientific precision revolutionized the kitchen and recipe sharing: “Recipes became more formalized,” as Oliver put it.
Her recipes keep alive names, habits, rituals, time periods, and regions in their simple lines of script.
My great-grandmother’s recipes exist somewhere in between these poles. In some recipes, the script scrawls together into one giant word, the instructions offered terse and simple: “Mix the above ingred together refrigerate form into balls & dip. ½ cake paraffin—6 oz choc chip melt & dip.” A recipe for carrot cookies lists all the ingredients and their quantities very carefully, but offers no explanation on how to mix the ingredients together. It simply says, “Drop on grease cookie sheet. Bake at 450 oven 12 to 15 min.”
If you’ve been baking for a while, you know that cookie recipes generally begin by creaming butter and sugar, adding eggs and vanilla, and then slowly adding the dry ingredients to this wet base. This recipe assuredly proceeds in the same fashion. But many recipes cards are like this: they demand translation and knowledge from the reader. They demand that you have paid attention, that you’re at least somewhat well-versed in the craft of cooking and baking.
Perhaps this is why recipe cards, in our time, seem to have lost some of their popularity. We are far more likely to turn to Pinterest and food blogs for guidance than we are to aged and yellowed recipe cards from the past. Food bloggers offer us precise and detailed directions, fancy pictures and assurances of success. It’s far easier for many American cooks to “trust” Bon Appetit or Deb Perlman than it is for them to put their faith in a stained recipe card with hard-to-read instructions.
But could we lose something if we abandon handed-down recipe cards, these pieces of the past? There are some parts of recipe cards, surely, that are okay to dispense with. My great-grandmother was a far greater fan of corn syrup and margarine than I am. But her recipes keep alive names, habits, rituals, time periods, and regions in their simple lines of script. Most of all, these recipe cards help us to, in the words of Margaret Renkl, remember our “beloved dead.” It would perhaps be salutary to consider each of these things in turn, because each signifies something important about the beauty and complexity inherent in the history of a recipe card.
First, the names: one of my favorite things about my great-grandmother’s recipe cards is the way she so carefully attributed them, like a journalist intent on quoting her source material. Even the recipes she obviously wrote down in a hurry, casually on some scrap of paper, have a name jotted in the top right corner. In our own time, when our recipes either come from web links to some large publication or the blog of a famous home cook, attribution isn’t nearly as difficult to maintain. But the attribution is national, not local. Our cooking world flattens—we don’t remember who gave us the recipe, nor do we have a record of the tweaks they experimented with in order to make the recipe their own. We lose the community of bakers and cooks that surround us, and increasingly turn to more far-off, famous sources.
But in Grandma Mom’s time, cooking was a local and regional practice. Preserving your sources thus mattered—because these recipes were cooked at church events, community gatherings, family birthdays, and other local events. If Clare Gray were at the next church potluck, you could make sure she got credit for her cranberry-sauce-cake recipe (and she’d likely be offended if she didn’t). Someone’s pride and hard work—as well as their own family history and passed-down knowledge—was always on the line, conveyed through those simple lines of text. Keeping their name next to the recipe signified the work they had gone through perfecting their craft, preserving their own family’s past, and unearthing good recipes from past and present sources. Women prized their recipes in those days—and all the skill and work they put into their craft was signified through these simple words: “Recipe from the Kitchen of Millie P.”
Recipes tell a history, then—not just of one’s own family members, their daily habits and meals, but also of their larger community. Through Grandma Mom’s recipes, I have documentation of many of the women in her church and town. I have a written record of their names, their favourite ingredients, their relative skill with stove and oven. Grandma Mom’s recipe cards do not just preserve her own past. They help us glimpse an entire place, and all the people who populated it.
Recipes also convey to us the habits and rituals of the past. Making candy at Christmastime was one of my great-grandmother’s customs, and the tradition was passed down to me as a young girl. I learned how to make caramels and “divinity” at my grandmother’s side: she showed me how to read a thermometer, how to temper chocolate, and when we did these things, we took our cues from Grandma Mom’s recipe cards. It was a way for us to keep the rituals of the past alive. This practice was a family favourite, and it is one I now hope to maintain with my own daughters.
Grandma Mom’s recipes reflect the changing times of a generation that lived between the 1920s and the 1980s. Some of her recipes involve only from-scratch ingredients: honey, flour, yeast, and so on. Others include canned goods, mayonnaise, graham crackers, corn flakes, and other more processed goods that became common in the 1950s and after. Some recipes directly call for a brand, like “Karo” or “Eagle Brand,” instead of referencing the actual ingredient needed (corn syrup and condensed milk, respectively). My maternal grandmother, Lee, has a whole set of recipes dating from this era. She was a proud hostess, always hosting dinner parties, and her recipes reflect the taste and habits of her time. Like many recipes of the era, they involve lots of Campbell’s condensed soups, canned mushrooms or green beans, and other brand-name staples of the ’50s and ’60s.
My great-grandmother moved to Idaho from North Dakota, however, and so there’s also a regional flair to some of her recipes. At least a few call for “Roman Meal”—an American bread company that was headquartered in Fargo, North Dakota, and sold bread, hot cereal, and snack bars made from a mixture of wheat and rye. She used their cereal mixture in a lot of her recipes—including her famous brown bread, which is one of my favourite recipes she concocted, and one that is most fully her own. But nowadays, I have to replace the called-for Roman Meal with whole-wheat flour or oat flour (at least until I figure out some other, better equivalent). The Roman Meal conveys something to me about where she began cooking (North Dakota) and when she cooked (the 1920s–1980s).
In a short piece on the history of banana bread, P.J. Hamel considers the way recipes were influenced by their times: recipes from the 1930s were influenced by the hardships of the Depression, and thus contained more inexpensive ingredients than some of their descendants. Wartime rationing similarly influenced the recipes of the 1940s. In 2018, a New Yorker essayist, Jonathan Kauffman, considered the carob craze of the 1970s and its origins. Each recipe’s ingredients and methods can teach us something about our past, and thus about ourselves.
I often wonder what the recipes of our time will teach future generations about us. For one thing, I think they will reflect the lack of cooking and baking education Americans have received. Tomorrow’s food historians will likely write about Hello Fresh and Blue Apron, Grubhub and Uber Eats. They will write about Rachael Ray’s thirty-minute meals, about all the essays considering the difficulties of cooking in a modern household. They may also write about viral recipe trends—about the homogenization of American cuisine, and the way home cooks increasingly received their cues from Pinterest, food bloggers, and Food Network.
But I think the sharing of recipes will continue. Every time someone brings a beloved dish to a party or event, there’s a chance for the exchange of recipes to continue—and thus for pieces of regional and personal history to endure into the future. In my own lifetime, I hope to write down some of the recipes my grandmother passed down to me through oral history, so that my children can cook them someday. Some of them may be difficult to replicate perfectly—again, time and region affect the ingredients available to us, and thus the flavours we bring to our table. But I hope to at least catch the joy and comfort in her recipes, the way they warmed our souls.
The stories of the past flow out of us as we mirror movements handed down by our forebears. There’s a sacredness to it, as it connects us to the dead, and enables us to share their memories and motions with another generation.
A recipe box can be “a kind of living document,” Renkl says, “an annotated interplay of generations. . . . There’s a recipe for pork tenderloin in my mother-in-law’s handwriting, too, and countless recipes from friends and relations whose handwriting I can still identify even decades after their deaths. I could create a timeline of my own life from those recipe cards.”
As Renkl makes clear, recipes offer an important interplay between past and present. We don’t just read an account of the past, and then slip it back onto the shelf. We embody the practice—often throughout our lives, over and over again as the seasons slip past us. We walk in the footsteps of our forebears, chopping and whisking and stirring as they would have chopped and whisked and stirred. Then, we eat as they would have eaten. Slowly, the recipes become part of our story—and their tastes fill us with a longing for home and for the dead, for what Wendell Berry refers to as “presences past.”
This process serves both to make history tangible and to turn the tangible into a work of history. Cooking, when done via handed-down recipes or skills, is as much an act of memory as it is a simple act of sustenance. When I bake with Grandma Mom’s recipes, it is a way to re-member her—literally, as I mimic her motions with my own limbs and eyes.
This is the beginning of history. The stories of the past flow out of us as we mirror movements handed down by our forebears. There’s a sacredness to it, as it connects us to the dead, and enables us to share their memories and motions with another generation. My daughters never got to meet my grandmothers. But just as my grandmother learned in Grandma Mom’s kitchen, I learned in hers—and so I now have the distinct honour and privilege to share them both with a new generation. Perhaps we’ll start with caramels.