I was the lucky recipient of an unexpected windfall last weekend. Ben’s grandmother is in the process of moving out of her home of 50 years, and, in that sad-ish but grateful way, her son and daughters are kept busy divvying up the accumulated belongings that would otherwise become the casualties of downsizing.
My haul from this process was a yellowing envelope, cracked and brittle at the corners. Ben’s mom placed it in my hands, telling me, “I knew this was for you.”
Inside the envelope were dozens of collected recipes spanning the last century. This was nobody’s complete kitchen collection—rather, someone had set these aside as their favorites. “For Ben” was scrawled on the front—for Ben’s grandfather, that is. I sifted through them, an agglomeration of recipes curated by someone I never really knew, written down by still others whose names and positions in the family tree are still obscure to me.
Some of the more recently copied recipes were for 1960s retro stand-bys. “I guess they were really into nut bread,” Ben’s mom remarked, after we encountered the third variation on it.
A lot of the earlier, Depression- and then World War II-era recipes were for jams, conserves, and pickles—thrifty recipes that seem newly hip with the resurgence of canning and artisan preserves. A bonus quaint treasure was an 1921 solicitation for government-sponsored canning classes, proclaiming “HOME CANNED FOOD IS SAFE”. The advertisement went on to detail methods that, nowadays, are discouraged by the USDA because it doesn’t rule out the presence of botulism.
But the most entrancing contents of the envelope were those from the turn of the last century. Written in otherworldly slanted script in faded brown fountain pen ink, I wouldn’t have known the recipes were as old as they were but for the fact that they were embedded in real letters.
In 1901, someone wrote,
“i now answer your letter hoping are all well as we are at present your father went to work a week ago last thursday but he does not know how long it will last as they are very slack elderberry wine you get your berries pull the larg stems of never mind the little ones put them in something and cover…”
If it seems like that’s one big run-sentence, it turns out our writer knows it, too, because she concludes the recipe saying “you can copy thiss and make it a little better to understand you know i am a poor speller and writer come over when you can
The older recipes, too, were refreshing in their candor. These are instructions for how to make the most out of dry storage pantry staples and whatever else you have around. A recipe for stuffed onions calls for “1/2 cup of choped leftover meat + vegetables or anything”. These are recipes for everyday cooks—a far cry from the wilderness of complex recipes available to us on the Internet nowadays, with ingredients lists that specify a particular type of chorizo or, worse (I am guilty of this in my own recipe writing), specify that produce need be organic or that eggs need be pastured. They are recipes of here and now and necessity.
I am no stranger to the deep nostalgia that old or inherited recipes can inspire. I’ve written before about how my own mother’s recipe box nearly drove me crazy after her death, causing me to, among other things, maniacally whip up batch after batch of a homemade barbecue sauce that I found written down in her files no fewer than four times.
But never before have I been appointed caretaker of recipes belonging to family into which I have only just begun to be included in the past few years, or one with whose lore I am still largely unfamiliar. These recipes are a primer on lineage (“Okay—so this Ethel—that’s your great aunt, right?), but they also give me personal ownership over my own familial intrigue. (“you ought to prize this for it saved your life once,” writes a matriarch in the text of her letter detailing a cordial recipe in the 1900s. Drama!)
Being handed that yellowing envelope is a privilege, for sure, and a bit of a responsibility (will I have to keep the family nut bread recipe alive?!). But mostly—and here’s where I confess, by way of explanation, that Ben and I got engaged in January—it’s one of the best inductions to the new branch of my family that I can fathom.