Recipe Notes and Cooking Stains Reveal Family History

The New York Times Dining & Wine section recently published an article titled Between the Recipes, Scribbles Speak Volumes. Author Kate Murphy celebrates the “ghosts [who] linger in old cookbooks, possibly the most annotated form of literature.”

I was born into a family of writers. Proofreader’s marks are the only scribbles in the one cookbook I inherited. I pine for the treasure I didn’t receive from the cooks in my family—the notes and musings that would reveal the kitchen triumphs (and disasters?) of my Hoosier forebears.

On the other hand, my husband’s family is full of great cooks. Their extended Chicago Polish-Italian clan eagerly contributed when my sister-in-law decided to produce a family cookbook one year. Being a writer—not a cook—myself, I most appreciate the headnotes, the writings that family members use to introduce their recipes:

“Bernardi Antipasto” begins, “Bruno and his dear friend John perfected this recipe. As usual, there is enough for an army, however, your friends will still beg you to make more!” The recipe yields twenty-five pints. That’s all you need to feel like you know Bruno Bernardi.

I teach a workshop occasionally on writing your cookbook-memoir. I encourage my students to write lengthy personalized introductions (“headnotes,” for the writers out there)—the stories behind each dish, rich with the details of who, how, and why each was prepared. The recipes you love are an important part of your heritage and a gift to pass along to future generations, I tell my cook/memoirists. When those recipes are accompanied by stories, your gift becomes one-of-a-kind record of your place at Life’s table.

And yet those headnotes, however lovingly recorded, don’t replace the incomparable gift of handwritten notes on a stained page. “Recipe reviews and comments on Web sites . . . just aren’t the same,” says Laura Petelle, quoted in the Murphy’s article. I have to agree. In our digital age, when electronic communications have largely replaced written records, I long for those loving, handwritten notes in the margins of cookbooks and on recipe cards.

Paging through my one inherited cookbook, A Cooks Tour of Muncie, compiled by the Altrusa Club, I’m delighted to come across one that brings back a special memory for me—a recipe for Buckeyes. I thought these were only known in Ohio (the Buckeye State). The only time I’ve tasted them was at the 2007 Nashville APH Conference, which featured a competition between regions to decorate tables on which they displayed their personal history products during an event called Town Square.



Those homemade Buckeyes displayed on the Great Lakes Chapter’s table might just be what convinced the judges to give the Great Lakers first prize.

You might enjoy making some to share with friends. Be sure to leave a few stains and notes on the recipe!

Note: The buckeyes pictured at right were made using Hersheys dark chocolate chips—and no “scrapings of paraffin.”


About today’s contributor:  Sarah White provides personal history services for individuals, families, businesses, and communities through her business, First Person Productions. Sarah is President of APH, the Association of Personal Historians.

Buckeyes photo by Fran Morley. Other photos from Sarah White’s family collection.

This entry was posted in Editing/Writing, Family Stories, Personal Historians, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Recipe Notes and Cooking Stains Reveal Family History

  1. Jane Shafron says:

    Sarah – this encourages me to leave more comments in my own cookbooks – including the one that I started in my own handwriting at age 12!

  2. Marty Walton says:

    In my partner Linda’s mother’s cook book called “Downer’s Grove Cook Book”, presented by The Ladies of the Congregational Church in 1933, there’s a taped-in recipe of a Boston Roast that was hand-written in pencil. After listing the ingredients, there’s a comment that says, “Very fine & cheap.” And then, in ink at the bottom, Linda’s mother wrote, “My grandmother gave me this recipe during World War I, 1914.” So this goes back almost 100 years, and was no doubt in use longer ago than that. And what is the Boston Roast made of? Just canned kidney beans, grated cheese, cracker crumbs, chopped onion and pepper, and a tomato sauce. No meat at all — that’s why it was cheap!

  3. Annie Payne says:

    There is something very endearing about a much loved, slightly spattered recipe book and I have two of Mum’s – a Green and Gold printed book published by the parents at Kings Methodist College for Boys in 1942 and an old red and white check covered book full of handwritten recipes.
    Mum has written notes beside many of the recipes such as ‘needs 2 eggs’ or ‘omit vinegar’ in the Green and Gold, which also contains such items as how to cure croup, make poultices and other handy hints.
    The handwritten recipes all have the name of the person who gave Mum each recipe such as Jenny’s Broccoli Soup, Sally’s Rum Chocolate Cake and I can picture most of the women who have donated such ‘tried and true’ recipes which I continue to cook over seventy years later.

  4. One of my greatest treasures is a handwritten cook book, my grandmother wrote for me on occasion of my 21st birthday. The recipes are collected from cookbooks – handwritten as well – she had put together during her marriage. Little did she, the kitchen expert, know, that her only grand daughter would soon realize that she had no talent in the kitchen what so ever.
    But I treasure my grandmothers cookbook – and had beautiful facsimile copies made for her now adult great-granddaughters. They all love cooking and baking and the recipes are an immediate connection to the great grandmother they hardly remember.

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