Monday, September 14, 2009

Pickin' Up the Crumbs

This cookbook belong to my Great Grandma Rich, who, like many in her time
filled vacant space inside her books with her own personal and shared recipes,
food preparation notes and even newspaper clippings.
There are few things that can tie a people to their history as strongly as food can. When a recipe is passed down from our elders to our meal preparers of today, there is a chain that is linked of momentous proportions. Food connects our past to our now and to our future. Even with the help of a family genealogy buff it doesn't take long before the confusion of who's Aunt (on which side of who’s family) great Aunt Dolly really was. On some level I don't think we even care how Aunt Dolly came to be our aunt so much as we are glad she was because we now have her recipes for date & walnut tea cakes and apple strudel.

The family-food connection is integral to both where we came from and where we are headed. The reason, I believe, that this connection of food is so significant is this: good food stands the test of time. Unlike literature that has marked its place with words on pages, many traditional and culture-specific food preparation techniques are passed down from generation to generation, from neighbor to neighbor, from old to young, without a word of it ever being written down. Many of these recipes will survive simply because foods that pleased us as children are those soul recharging meals now recreated by us as nostalgic adults.

On some level, I feel like it is almost criminal to hoard secret family recipes. Not only for the reason that all forms of art are copied somehow from somewhere and then tweaked, but also because it is in this gesture of trying to keep these amazing bits of our history a secret that we run the risk of disconnecting that chain of the past to the future. Far worse, we miss out on sharing those cultural and familial unique traditions with others.

Truthfully, this is not a persuasive bit; a shoddy attempt to get my oven mitts on your secret family recipes. If anything, I should enter an official warning here: DO NOT, under any circumstances, feed me any of your secret family food concoctions if you want to keep the secret in the family. I have this gift; not exactly a talent but more of an obsessive trial and error type personality fault that, combined with an astute tongue and a strong desire to recreate any food that is pleasing to me--well, let's just say I can blindly duplicate all kinds of food creations. It may not be tomorrow or next week, but eventually I will probably figure it out. I make a heck of the well-guarded and undisclosed Crepe Timballo a la Termano. I am fairly certain that the last batch of Diane's Secret Cream Cheese Cuban Flan was pretty darn close to the real thing as well. [maniacal laugh heard here]

More than anything, I really dislike seeing good food go away to likely be forgotten. Sure, food trends do come and go in cycles just as fashion does. It may come as a surprise that moules marinière (muscles in broth) has been prepared since the rule of King Richard II of England (he ruled from 1377 -1399).* Who would guess that modern day almond milk found at food co-ops and health food stores was actually a popular ingredient in medieval cooking? * Without documentation, these historically relevent bits of information would probably have been long forgotten. It is probable that original documentation can be credited with sustaining these recipes so that we may benefit from them today.

Alright, perhaps this is a persuasive piece. Maybe I am asking you, pleading with you, to share your prized recipes with the world. For those of us who live to cook, there is a personal importance placed upon how good it feels to cook for others. I assure you, it will feel just as good to prepare it after you've shared your recipes. And not to worry, because no one version will taste quite as good as yours. You'll be buying insurance that your recipe, and your culinary brilliance, will live on.

If you are not quite ready to give that part of yourself, that is alright. Still, you may want to keep your eyes on me. If you see any odd behavior and it appears that I am pocketing scraps and pickin' up the crumbs, well--most likely I am! ~

* Sass, Lorna F. (1975). To The King’s Taste: Richard II’s Book of Feasts and Recipes Adapted for Modern Cooking The Metropolitan Museum of Art

My mother's collection of Rumford Baking Powder paraphernalia which
includes a box, various cookbooks and glass bottles that once held baking powder.

This book is a treasure that I picked up at a bazaar several years ago. It is a collection of recipes self-published by (I can only assume) an equally amazing woman named Betty Hollan Robinson. This collection begins with old fashioned recipes that were originally cooked by the then young author "at Gran's side" in a woodstove while using with hand-pumped well water. Hundreds of recipes cover a span of decades and leading up until the book's publishing in 1992. I know nothing of this book except for notes of people and places she has given credit and gratitude. Internet searches for all mentioned people and places have brought empty results. Anyone with information or knowledge of this family please feel free to contact me:

The Country Tart
Inside cover reads: Cover Photo is "Sunnyside", the ancestral home of The Holland Family in Wilmington, Fluvanna County, Virginia.

Home remedy newspaper clippings pasted on inside cover of a 100 year old cookbook. While a dealer might say that these items diminsh the books value, I believe that this makes them far more historically significant. Coming from a time when nothing was wasted, these added jewels make the books far more interesting to me.

Instructions for preparing mustard greens, affixed to a page by an old strait pin.

Recipes and clippings from my grandfather's sister Ruth.

A recipe from my Great Aunt Tess printed and given to my mother. Aunt Tess was one of the family's best and most cherished cooks whom lived into her nineties. Bottom of page: she began to share her recipe for tradional Italian Pasticciotto tarts (known commonly as "Pusties" in the Utica region of New York) but then decided that special tart pans were needed so she abruptly (and comically) stopped mid recipe.


  1. My best friend has a recipe box full of hand-written recipes from the ladies of the church my husband attended since he was born and that his dad still attends and has attended for 60 years. Our husbands have known each other their whole lives, having grown up in the same church. One night we looked through them and reminisced about the ladies we knew who had passed on. Seeing their handwriting on the index cards was magical for me. I imagined them our age and writing the recipe down for a swap. I imagined the phone call that took place between friends to solicit the use of the recipe. I'm getting teary eyed thinking about it now. My friend called me the other day to find out about some substitutions for bread she was making from one of the ladies recipes. I thought about this the whole way to my destination. I wish I had more of my grandma's recipes. For the longest time I thought she was Italian, because she made sausage and meatballs from scratch as well as the sauce. I had visions of her in the city (New York, where my grandpa was a cab driver for a short bit) cooking a big pot of it on an old stove. Come to find out, when I grew up, it was recipe given to her by an Italian neighbor (her best friend at the time) and that my great-grandma's maiden name was Levandowski (Polish). I never understood all the Polish jokes (having assumed we were Italian based on one favorite dish) until I put this puzzle together.

  2. That is so very interesting. I never considered the "art" side of recipes before.

  3. Love this post Lynn! The story behind a recipe is definitely special.

    On a totally separate note I and a couple of friends take a cooking class each semester at the local adult school just for fun and to get together and enjoy eachother's company. This semester it was a pasta making class. We had a blast! One of the recipes we were given for a pasta sauce was a lemon cream sauce which was devine. It is very simple: 2 tblsp lemon juice, the zest of 1 lemon, 2 tblsp butter, 1 cup heavy cream, pepper to taste, 1/2 cup shred parm. Heat the lemon juice, zest and butter for about 30 seconds on med high heat. Add the cream and pepper, reduce heat and simmer stirring frequently until reduced to about half approx 7 minutes. Add parm and cooked pasta, mix and serve with fresh parsley sprinkled on top. This would probably be great served with some shrimp skewers or something to that effect. I may even add some shrimp or scallops directly to the dish next time. Loved it! Feel free to make this recipe your own. Let me know how you like it!

  4. Sounds good! In the summer, I like to squeeze a little lemon juice in light cream with some chives and salt and pepper to taste. The lemon causes a chemical reaction that thickens the cream (I mix it by shaking in a jar). I then toss with zucchini that has been cut on a mandolin into strips like spaghetti or fettuccini. It is so fresh and crisp and summery. I bet it would be great with seafood, too!

  5. oooh, that sounds so yummy! Lynn - love this - there's nothing like seeing family traditions being handed down like this on the page.

  6. I love this blog. Very heartwarming. Family traditions...priceless!