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Culinary Heirlooms.

One of the reasons I became a food writer, besides my passion for eating and baking, was to remember the art my mother and grandmothers practiced daily in their kitchens. As a child it had such an effect on who I would become that I wanted somehow to remember it, to record it. It felt important to do that. Particularly in this day of “Let’s just stuff our faces as quickly as we can and move on to the next thing on our to do list.”

Bill Buford, founder of Granta (I heart Granta) and the terrific book, “Heat” which chronicles his experiences as a “kitchen bitch” for Mario Batali, said something a few years ago that has always resonated. I’ve never forgotten it because it’s so frightening:

“This is the first generation of people that won’t have family recipes to pass on to their children.” 

The plethora of pre-cooked convenience foods and the amount of restaurant traipsing has made extinct recipes for all-day cooked spaghetti sauce and things like homemade biscuits, pies, and cakes. People don’t even roast chicken anymore but buy a rottiserie space-pod bird from their local superGiantEagleKrogerWegmans mart. Not that those aren’t delicious (they are) but gone are the days when recipes were passed down like precious heirlooms.

Bill is right. What I wouldn’t give for my Muddy’s recipe for coconut cake. She passed away before I could get it. Or my Nana’s Waldorf salad. Or my Aunt Ann’s pound cake. How will our cuisine evolve when things like this aren’t learned and treasured? I don’t even know my own Momma’s recipe for lemon-raspberry tart, which was my favorite. She made it every time I requested it – usually for birthday dinners. Hell, she didn’t halfway remember it herself. When asked, she’d reply, “Oh, a little of this and that. If you want I could TRY to write it down…” Things like this are important and should be treasured like photographs or old slides. Once they’re gone they’re only good memories. Delicious taste memories that fade.

Several years ago I had a moment of clarity and grabbed one of these taste memories. I still treasure it, scribbled in a shaky hand on the back of an envelope, the edges tattered, the paper wrinkled. It’s for my Nana’s pickled eggs. I love her pickled eggs. To me they sing of home, Christmas, jingle bells, and all things Yuletide. She only made them then. Sometimes I could get her to make them as early as Thanksgiving, but never in the spring or summer. No, pickled eggs were pure cold weather food. Delicious pickled cold weather food. Eggs the color of beets and so pickled your lips would pucker when you bit into them and so purple your tongue would look like a Chow dog. I loved them.

As Nana grew older, I realized my time with the eggs would grow shorter and shorter unless I did something. Unless I learned to make them myself. So I got the recipe. I actually sat my Nana down and made her give me the pickled egg recipe. Nana gave measurements like “a pinch” or “just enough,” nothing concrete. I made them numerous times over the next several years with varying amounts of success. They tasted good, but they tasted different. Never as good as Nana’s. But at least I was making them.

Ironically, when I looked for this recipe to put in the blog, hopefully passing it on to the Internet generation, I couldn’t find it. I thought it was glued carefully into a recipe book I made for myself, alongside other treasured recipes culled from magazines. My foolproof favorites I call them. But it wasn’t there. I even looked in my crate of “as yet to be glued” recipes to no avail. It was nowhere to be found. Lost forever. Somehow I felt as if I proved Bill Buford right. Sure, I could find a similar recipe on the Interwebs, but it wouldn’t be hers. It wouldn’t be Nana’s.

The hunt wasn’t all in vain though – I found other things. Recipes torn from newspapers and magazines, photocopied onto white paper with handwritten suggestions like, “Use more turmeric than is called for,” and “Black beans work just as well.” These were my Momma’s foolproof favorites. She’d given me my own collection as a “starter pack” for my first foray into the outside world as a young woman. I still have them and by now they’re mixed in with my own. There was even a scribbled slip of paper called, “Ingredients for a Happy Life,” that Momma had come up with. Her food poetry I suppose. Finding these forgotten treasures was a small revelation, easing the pain of my pickled egg loss.

One recipe, “Granny’s Apple Sauce Cake” was photocopied from a newspaper article. Evidently my mother had sent in this gem to the local paper. Mee Maw (the Granny in question) was my grandfather’s mother. The local Waynesboro paper printed the recipe and here it was – passed on to the next generation. There’s no date, but I have to think it might be from the late 1950’s. A true culinary heirloom.

I love the lack of direction in this recipe. Cook for how long? Until it’s done. At what temperature? Whatever one is needed. It’s got a directness that’s refreshingly simple in this age of foams and food alchemy. I’ve no children to pass this recipe to – and so I cast it to the winds and whims of the Interwebs. Maybe somebody somewhere will make “Granny’s Apple Sauce Cake” and keep the taste memory alive. Mee Maw would’ve liked that. I haven’t made it yet, but after rediscovering this recipe, I sure plan to. It’s not pickled eggs, but I love apples too.

Granny’s Apple Sauce Cake

1 cup butter or lard
2 cups sugar
2 cups sour apple sauce
1 tsp soda in each cup sauce
2 tsps each of cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice
2 cups cooked raisins
4 eggs
4 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp salt
1 cup nuts (if desired) black walnuts preferred

Add soda to apple sauce. Add sugar, eggs, salt, spices and stir. Add flour gradually. Then add raisins, nuts, and melted butter. Cook raisins almost dry. Seeded raisins need no cooking. Bake in tube pan in moderate oven.

7 Comments Post a comment
  1. I love this! It's so true. There are quite a few recipes of my Aunt Loretta & my grandmother's that I wish I had. Although in the case of Granny, I know that a good deal of her 'secret' recipes actually came from the back of the box. Even if the packaging has changed, chances are good I can still find the starter recipe she worked off of.And Aunt Loretta gave me the cheesecake recipe she always made for me right before she passed away. I treasure it.

    December 7, 2010
  2. Oh I *love* back of the box recipes LOL isn't it nice to know you can grab the same basic how to as your Granny did? :DI'd love to start a recipe sharing something something *brain cogs working* If you want to share the cheesecake recipe I'd be glad to post it, and if I *EVER* find the pickled egg recipe…..

    December 7, 2010
  3. One of my favorite Christmas gifts from my mother was a recipe box in 1984. My sister and I were newlyweds, and we each got one. Inside, there were about a dozen of the standout recipes from both my mother's and my father's side of the family, and every year in our Christmas card, mom would include another three or four recipe cards — sometimes something family/familiar, sometimes something that just caught her eye in Southern Living (but hadn't tried yet!) The box is now full of recipes I've collected over the years…. and it is TREASURED!

    December 7, 2010
  4. I love the "just enough" direction. So helpful for many areas of life. : ) Great post. Thanks.

    December 8, 2010
  5. @Lisa thank you for the kind words :)@Kathy, this is wonderful. What a fabulous idea, what a wonderful treasure. I think I may have to email my aunties to see if they have any old recipes lying around :DAll of this positive feedback has given me an idea….I may begin posting some of these recipes on a regular basis, just to give them "new life", maybe make some, and if anyone wants to send any for posting, baking, etc. just send 'em on! Rather than letting these sit in a drawer somewhere we'll bring them back to life by passing them on to the Interwebs…what do you think?

    December 8, 2010
  6. Just like you, I started writing to preserve the family recipes. But unlike you, I was not that interested in preserving them when I was a young adult. My mother sent me to the University with a "little black book" full of my favorite and simple to make recipes.When my Njanja died, I inherited her recipe book, and I always go back to it for pastries and cookies.Your story took me back to the lands of nostalgia, and I enjoued reading it.(I figured out that they did not really post recipes – they were mostly reminders, because they already knew how the bread dough should feel and how long an apple sauce cake should bake:)

    December 9, 2010
  7. Such an great post Jibs – It made me tear up a bit. As someone who can't really cook and often gets frustrated when I try to make my mom's lasagna or apple pie and can't quite get it to taste the same, you're absolutely right – get the recipes, and even more correctly stated – cook with your family! I make my gram (mimi) walk me through her homemade pugutch and her sugar pie every chance I get. One christmas my grandmother asked what I wanted – I told her I wanted all of her 'special' recipes. Much to my multitude of cousins jealous groans – I was presented the single most treasured gift I've ever received. a bound folder of all of her hand written recipes, along with a few stories of how she came to make the food (i.e. the time we went camping I and told her I didn't like chicken and dumplins, but when told it was CAMP CHICKEN, it became my new favorite meal…still to this day it remains one of my favorites).-Penny

    December 28, 2010

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