Sunday, 27 April 2014 | 45 comments

you ought to prize this

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

your mother”

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.

§ 45 responses to you ought to prize this

  • This is so lovely! I was given all of my grandma’s recipes and my mom’s. I don’t know how to organize them and display them though. I’ve been thinking maybe a scrapbook? I can’t wait to see what kind of lovely things you make with these!

  • Thank you for sharing this. Recipes are a truly unique way to transfer family love, experiences, hard-earned lessons, and easily forgotten anecdotes to those who we want to remember us. It’s extra special when it’s from a significant other’s family – I think nothing says, “you’re in” quite as much as sharing kitchen lore.

  • When we moved my grandma out of her house, I went through her kitchen and took all the dishes I needed to begin building my own kitchen–I was a freshman in college and was being practical and not overly sentimental. I have a big stock pot, a frosting spreader, a citrus juicer, an apple corer, a hamburger press (not sure why I thought that was necessary), and lots more. I asked for written recipes, but she didn’t have any! So now I cook all my soups in the same pot that my grandma cooked countless batches of her oyster stew in, knowing that I won’t ever have her secret recipe. It’s bittersweet. What a lovely, lovely treasure trove you were given ! What a wonderfully welcoming gift from your new family.

  • Congratulations! On your haul and your engagement. Marriage is a lovely thing – more lovely than I ever thought it would be, honestly. Enjoy diving into the history of your new branch of the family.

  • congratulations on the engagement… and the welcome into the family. it is an inclusion that will grow and get more and more meaningful as time goes by… these little things, like the recipes… grow so much larger in time. so so much.

  • Congratulations on this marvelous inheritance and entry into a new family. I wish you all the best.

  • Karolyn Chamberlin

    You have an uncanny ability to bring me to tears. Beautiful post, and what a truly touching gift. Congratulations and welcome to the wild, wonderful world of marriage!

  • Margot Van Schaick

    Wishing you all the best! You’re taking another step in the adventure of life. Loved reading this sweet, sweet post.

  • I’ve often said that church cookbooks can’t be trusted, for who would give their best recipe to the whole town? No, the best reside in the yellowed envelope. Congrats on such a gift and your engagement. A flurry of activity awaits you — no doubt, some nut bread will be required! :)

  • Congratulations! What wonderful news and what a great way to be introduced to your new family branch!

  • What a lovely induction into a family. They must think you’re in for the long haul entrusting their family recipes to you. My mother has dementia and my sister were reading some recipes she wrote down for a meat loaf and a strawberry and rhubarb crumble, just reading those recipes from a couple of decades ago made me want to cry.

  • I am not sure why my grandmother, the one who actually could cook in the family that is, never wrote down and saved her recipes ink on paper. They are all in her head, which seems like a safe place –her memory is not fading a bit, but… I tried to get some down in print, to save them from oblivion, however nothing matches the magic of an old, hand written recipe. No one writes with such a beautiful calligraphy these days, and few write on atual paper either. That box of recipes and memories is a real treasure, no matter if you will actually make the nut loaf or not. Congratulations for the lovely news!

  • I like that you note it as a confession, hehe. Congratulations sweet girl and all the love for you and Ben; may it ever multiply!

    • Well, I wasn’t even planning on sharing that particular detail, but I got to that point in writing and realized the story lacked a certain gravitas without that knowledge… Thanks :)

  • Congratulations!! Such lovely news for you and Ben and lovely recipes, too. My boyfriend’s mom (well, fiance these days too, actually!) gave me one of the recipe books that belonged to her mother. Lots of pies and pickled things. The woman made a pie every Sunday! It certainly feels like an honor to now be the keeper of it. Can’t wait to see what recipes you make from your new treasure.

  • Wonderful story! I hope one day you will collect all your posts and turn them into a book. And, of course, congratulations on your engagement! :)

  • Kathleen Matthews

    I’m LOVING this post, as I do all your posts, especially the ones about your large family. I hope you’ll share some more of these fascinating recipes – and maybe the specifics of any you try out and would recommend we replicate as well.

    And a huge congrats on your engagement!


  • Congratulations Sarah! There is indeed no better acceptance into a family then when given the family’s culinary traditions, in of itself, they are heirloom jewels :))) Such a beautiful collection and I am in awe of the beautifully elegant handwriting in those letters!

  • What a gift!

  • “I knew this was for you.”….. sooo nice!
    I have some from my Grandma. I snicker every time I see the recipe, Biddy on Toast, and always, always think, WHAT!, no matter how many times I see it. Crazy. It has chicken as an ingredient. I am assuming that is why. :-)
    I love her more and more every time I open up that box.

  • big congratulations to the two of you! I love that gorgeous shot of the recipe-littered table, and what a lovely project for you to embark on, exploring Ben’s family history this way. my hope is that you’ll have all the time in the world to do so, to make it your own, to add plenty of your own recipe scraps to the family canon.

  • Jen Y

    I love this!
    I knew my husband’s grandmother very well & loved her as much as my own. I was one of her grandkids from the 1st time I met her & it always made me smile that even when we were in our 40’s she still called us the kids.

    We were married well over 20 yrs when she died & our visits to her farm were my favorite family visits on both sides of our family. We always came home with some homemade leftovers, canned foods fresh from her garden & starts of some family plant that had been passed down. My garden is full of southern passed down flowers that I love!

    I could go on, she hasn’t been gone that long & I miss her terribly. She was an amazing letter writer. My husband started writing her when he was about 5 yrs old & they wrote letters for at least 40 yrs. He saved almost all of them. They are very precious to us, reading what she was canning, who was born/died/married/ect & giving me directions on the last plant she sent home with me; plus always a sweet story for her great-grandson, usually about her dog. And yes often a handwritten recipe for me.

    Just think, someday you can be sending these treasures all over the world to your grandchildren. :o)

  • Sarah

    This reminds me of my family’s unintentional tradition of hand-writing recipes..I have very similar looking papers written by my grandfather, my mother and my aunts that I treasure and hope to pass on to my kids someday. What a special introduction to your new family…congrats!

  • Magnificent, as always.

  • Oh Sarah best wishes to you two! And what a wonderful welcome gift. Beautiful writing as always.

  • What a gift. My mother has a few of my Abuelita’s old notebooks. She came to the States from Panama in the 1950s and as such, half the recipes are shorthand Spanish, and the other half are classic 1950s American–sort of a bizarre mix. She was (I’ve been told) an excellent cook, but her writings were clearly for herself, sometimes little more than an ingredient list. I enjoy the challenge of making her recipes my own.

  • Lovely, lovely, lovely! Drama indeed (that made me laugh!) Thrilled the hear of your engagement. Somehow, marriage is different — both in how others treat you and your partner, and in how you view the relationship yourself. It’s mysterious and bizarre. Wishing you great excitement and joy in the months and years ahead.

  • Christine

    When my great grandmother passed away one of the things we found was a collection of apple recipes. My aunt and brother compiled them all into a book: We all have a copy. It’s a pretty cool thing to own.

  • Fiona

    I love Aunt Ethel’s handwriting and the ‘f’s’ the most. You are truly blest..

  • of here and now and necessity.


    so important, so true.. (and this, from a woman who specified in the past month, chorizo. a particular type, nonetheless.).

    i think we’ve lost so much in our race to an anything/anytime/anywhere kitchen. gained so much, also. it’s not tidy, is it?

    also, a huge, wholehearted congratulations to you two. it sounds as if you’ve landed in just the right branch of the tree.


  • Oh, I love things like this. I have dreams of inheriting my great-grandmother’s recipe box. Not only is it a tiny window into someone’s life (or maybe just their kitchen, which for many women, was a large part of their lives), but also a pinhole camera view of the past and our history as animals that cook and eat together. So lovely.

  • This is just beautiful. I love that you are taking the responsibility for all that heritage. Your new family is lucky to have you.

  • CONGRATS! Way to bury the lede (but in a lovely way) :) Love these recipes; I wish my family had such a legacy but alas … It inspires me to hand-write some of my own recipes for the future, which I naively hope still includes an appreciation for such things. Wishing you the best!

  • Old handwritten recipes can wear so beautifully and it’s especially meaningful when they are family recipes. We had one framed, it’s for ginger snap cookies. We put it up in the kitchen. It’s not even from anyone we know but sometimes I stop and look at it and imagine the life of the woman who penned it. What a sweet and thoughtful gift you’ve received. May you enjoy it for years to come!

  • Ann

    In our family, the wives welcome new brides with 10 or so of our favorite recipes, in a pretty box. That works out to 100 or more recipes, each in the original cook’s handwriting, and some with the story behind the recipe.

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