Recipes, recipes, recipes! They’re everywhere – in daily newspapers, on cereal boxes or postcards from realtors; and, of course, in the many magazines placed to grab our attention at supermarkets. Why, there are even a few in this one. But the best recipes, the ones that tell their own stories and define our pasts, are those heirloom recipes, handwritten or oral, that have been passed down from our ancestors, relatives or friends.
So what do those family recipes tell us? Some, like the Slumgullion my mother used to make when I was a child living on a 120-acre farm, speak about our beginnings. The dictionary calls Slumgullion a watery meat stew; but I remember the dish as a filling meal for four or more, prepared when time was in short supply. Today, when I prepare Slumgullion, I picture my mother standing near the cookstove, browning the meat in a cast-iron skillet, or, 20 minutes later, our family sitting down together for supper at an oilcloth-covered table. This memory suggests time together and healthful fresh food.
Sometimes, old recipes speak about special occasions and sacrifice. Whenever my dad picked the dessert, he would ask for Pompadour Pudding. It tasted great, combining vanilla and chocolate flavors, and had a fancy look. Most of the required ingredients were commonplace in farm kitchens: sugar, flour, salt, eggs, milk and vanilla. My mother – a busy farm wife, who cooked for the family and hired hands, fed chickens, weeded a large vegetable garden, cared for children and kept up the house – often blanched when “The Pudding” was mentioned because it took quite a bit of fussing. There was the pudding; and then there was the fluff, curled up on the top like the popular hairstyle. But, sometimes, Mother did find the time to make my dad’s favorite dessert for a special occasion.
Sometimes, the recipes remind us of rituals or procedures now called unhealthy. Many years ago, my father, dressed in his well-patched bib overalls, fried the fresh, floured pieces of spring chicken in lard. I can still taste that crispy version, topped off with milk gravy made in the leftover drippings and spread over homegrown boiled potatoes with the skins on. You could count on my dad always eating the back and gizzard; my sister and I splitting a breast while she ate the liver and I ate the heart; and Mother always choosing the wings. These days, fried anything (and especially in lard) is considered a health hazard – as are organ meats. Whether it’s mere nostalgia or the fact of the matter, I remember that fried chicken as the best I have ever eaten.
Sometimes, the old recipes conjure memories of friends who taught us to eat in a new way. Farmers and their children often ate quickly so that they could get back to the fields or chores. Little time was spent with hors d’oeuvres, wine, or snappy pre-lunch or supper small talk. But when we moved from the country to the city, our neighbors and friends, the Hoppers, taught me and my husband that a few minutes with cheese, crackers and cocktails was time well spent. And Jean gave me a wonderful quiche recipe that could be made ahead, popped into the oven and removed moist and delicious at just the right moment. I had never heard of quiche until Jean served it at her home. My husband and I broadened our childhood dining experiences through friends.
Sometimes an old handwritten recipe will bring back a character who made our lives easier. Elsa Paxton, my first landlady when I was a 20-year-old new teacher, made warm, healthful breakfasts and dinners when I boarded in her home. We didn’t always agree on politics, but I got my first three handwritten recipes (written in green ink) from her. They saved me when I was a young bride preparing my own meals.
Old recipes scribbled on random scraps of paper at Farm Bureau potlucks, American Legion dances or church socials offer us a look at our varied and special pasts. They transport us back to memories of people, places, foods and events that touched our lives. We need to preserve those unique recipes and the memories they evoke. If we do, like heirloom seeds, antique dolls, passed-down names and family trees, an important part of our family histories will live on through generations.
½ cup sugar
2 tablespoons flour
1/8 teaspoon salt
2 egg yolks, beaten
1 egg, beaten
2 cups milk, scalded
1 teaspoon vanilla
½ cup confectioner’s sugar
2 egg whites, stiffly beaten
1 ounce unsweetened chocolate, melted
½ teaspoon vanilla
½ teaspoon salt
For pudding, combine sugar, flour, salt, egg yolks and whole egg. Slowly add small amount of milk and blend; stir mixture into remaining milk. Cook in double boiler until thick; cool. Add vanilla, blend well and pour into serving dish. Chill at least 1 hour.
For chocolate fluff, gradually add sugar to egg whites and beat until sugar is dissolved. Slowly add melted chocolate, vanilla and salt; blend well. Chill for at least 1 hour, then spoon over chilled pudding before serving. Yields 6 servings.
Elsa Paxton was a crusty woman with a bit of an English accent, borrowed from her late husband, George. She was more than three times my age when I rented a room from her in 1960. Her Apple Dessert is the very first recipe that I placed in my collection before I married. I still have it.
2 eggs well beaten
1 cup sugar
¼ cup flour
1 cup sliced fresh apples
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ cup nut meats
Heat oven to 350°F. Grease and flour 8-by-8-inch pan; set aside.
In mixing bowl, combine ingredients in order given. Pour into prepared pan. Bake 30 minutes.
Cut into squares. Serve with whipped or ice cream.
I didn’t realize at the time how lucky I was to have fresh ingredients in many of the dishes my mother prepared. Her Slumgullion used fresh or home-canned tomatoes and onions pulled from the garden in summer or retrieved gratefully from the fruit cellar in winter. The hamburger was ground from our own grass-fed, butchered beef. When I was a youngster on the farm, we knew where our food was coming from.
3 tablespoon fat (I now eliminate this ingredient)
1 pound hamburger
3 medium onions, thinly sliced
2 cups diced fresh tomatoes, peeled (canned will do)
1 cup uncooked macaroni
Salt and pepper to taste
In skillet, heat fat. Brown hamburger and onion; add tomatoes, uncooked macaroni and seasonings. Cover and simmer about 20 minutes or until macaroni is soft.
Additional vegetables could be used such as peppers or mushrooms. This is a low-cost meal that will feed at least 4 generously.
One year, my dad decided he would plant cucumbers and sell them to an area pickle factory for a profit. My whole family learned quickly that the most valuable cucumbers were the smallest ones, probably the size of our thumbs and about as long. We spent many hours working in that quarter-acre plot carved out of the apple orchard. My mother, the quintessential saver and user of available produce, made great dill pickles from whatever was rejected by the pickle factory; and her pickles were notoriously delicious.
Dill Pickles (Recipe written on the back side of a 3-by-5-inch information card from an insurance company for which my dad worked part-time.)
Pick cucumbers, wash and let stand overnight in cold water. (She doesn’t say what quantity, but I think half a bushel should do.)
Into each quart jar, put 1/8 teaspoon powdered alum, 1 clove of garlic, 2 heads of dill with seeds and 1 small red pepper (if desired). Pack jars with pickles, whole or quartered lengthwise.
Combine 1 quart vinegar (4 cups), 1 cup pure salt, 3 quarts water. Bring to boiling point (not boiling). Pour liquid over pickles in jars.
Scald metal lids, wipe tops of each jar rim clean, put on metal lids, and screw bands and lids tightly. Yields 6 to 8 quarts. Ready to eat in 6 weeks.
Everyone has a favorite sandwich made with sliced tomatoes (or if they don’t, they should). Some involve time under a broiler; some do not. This sandwich, made with liverwurst, was my father’s favorite; and it is mine today, especially when I can pick fresh tomatoes from my garden.
George’s Favorite Summer Sandwich
Select any two slices of bread – the healthier, the better.
You can butter them, spread one with mayonnaise or salad dressing, or leave them plain.
Then, thinly slice liverwurst and place it on one slice of bread.
Next, thinly slice dill pickles (my mother’s homemade ones were the best) and place them over the liverwurst. Finally, slice fresh tomatoes and place slices over the other two layers, sprinkle on a little ground pepper, and add the final slice of bread.
Be prepared for some dripping from the ingredients, but also great blended flavors. Perhaps a person who has been urged to cut down on salt for health reasons could simply slice fresh tomatoes and onions on two pieces of whole wheat bread for a substitute and eliminate the liverwurst and pickles.
I wouldn’t have included a Milk Toast recipe, thinking it too simplistic. But, then I saw one in a 92-year-old’s recipe book – a recipe that had been cut from a newspaper. So, here’s how my mother made Milk Toast for my sister and me when we were a bit under the weather. I still like it.
Begin scalding about ¾ cup milk in small pan. Then toast two pieces of bread. (In the “old days” it was white bread; now it’s whole wheat.)
Place toast on plate with slight edge. Butter toast liberally, and salt and pepper pieces to taste. When milk is scalded, pour over toast and let it soak in. Eat while hot.
This is comfort food at its best!
Jean’s Shared Quiche
Pastry for 10-inch pie, unbaked
1½ cup grated Swiss cheese
1 can (2½ ounces) sliced mushrooms, drained
12 slices bacon, crisply fried and crumbled
3 eggs, beaten
1 cup whipping cream
½ cup milk
1/8 teaspoon pepper
Dash cayenne pepper
Heat oven to 375°F.
Line pie pan with pastry and flute edge. Sprinkle bottom with cheese, mushrooms and crumbled bacon. Combine remaining ingredients; pour into shell.
Bake for 45 minutes or until custard is lightly browned and set. Yields 6 to 8 servings.
Jan Hasselman Bosman writes from her home in Woodstock, Illinois, and she is the author of Memories of Family, Friends, and Food, a scrapbook for old recipes and the stories behind them.