For the past several years I have encouraged you to gather and keep your handwritten recipes as a historical record of the cooks in your family.
Many of those recipes will be for family favorites and immediately evoke memories of special foods you enjoyed or occasions you celebrated — my mom’s Coca-Cola cake reminds me of my sister’s favorite birthday cake.
I never knew either of my grandmothers, both died before I was born. But thanks to my mom, while I may not know my grandmother’s voice, I know her fluid handwriting well and the type of recipes she wrote down.
My latest inspiration comes from Deirdre Scaggs, who shares my belief in the importance of family recipes. She is the Associate Dean of Special Collections at the University of Kentucky and a previous resident of Vanceburg.
Her book, “The Historic Kentucky Kitchen,” is a showcase of family recipes she found as she compiled the collections of Kentucky family artifacts.
Thanks to my friend and neighbor, Jennie Penn, I got to spend an afternoon at the Keen Library at the University of Kentucky, where Scaggs discussed her latest book.
Penn serves on the UK Libraries National Advisory Board and this lecture series was an opportunity for members of the board and their guests to hear about the archivist’s work.
“Just as memories are passed down through stories shared around the stove, snapshots of times past are also preserved when family recipes are passed down to future generations,” Scaggs wrote.
Scaggs and Andrew W. McGraw, sous chef at County Club Restaurant in Lexington, collected recipes from handwritten books, diaries, scrapbook clips and out-of-print cookbooks in the UK Libraries Special Collections.
To make the book even more accurate for our times, Scaggs prepared every recipe published in the book — sometimes more than once.
John van Willigen, Professor Emeritus of Anthropology and himself an author on Kentucky cooking, “Food and Everyday Life on Kentucky Family Farms, 1920-1950,” provides the foreword and explains to the reader the true importance of family recipes.
He compares the swapped recipes to social media.
“Including a person’s recipe in one’s collection is a little like friending someone on Facebook. Giving a recipe a place serves to link us together, solidifies a shared memory and provides us with an affiliation,” van Willigen wrote.
He also cites Kentucky cookbook author Marion W. Flexner who wrote, “We cook by ear.”
How, you ask? Think about it. Recipes were probably first passed down by telling someone how to do it. Many mothers would often tell daughters, “watch me.”
When cookbooks finally came along we had a guidepost; directions to follow to achieve the desired recipe. Some of our ancestors clipped from early newspapers and magazines.
Many good cooks didn’t have a recipe; many still don’t. Getting my mom to configure several of her recipes for me to write down was a chore that often took several days.
“Oh, I forget to tell you baking soda,” she would say as she perused her recipe I had recorded.
Van Willigen wrote that somewhere between cooking by ear and published cookbooks came manuscript recipes.
He also cleared up another mystery for me: why handwritten recipes often just include ingredients.
The noted UK professor wrote that often these recipes were given to women who knew how to cook and they only needed the ingredients.
By the way, van Willigen told me he will soon have published a “History of Kentucky Cookbooks.” It will definitely be one I will add to my collection.
Scaggs delighted us with some of her humorous anecdotes that occurred as she tried to recreate a recipe into a dish by reading the original owner’s handwritten recipe. That’s what makes this book valuable is that she has translated obsolete terms into today’s cooking terminology and in the case where there were no cooking times, she provides them.
As for those early terms, think “gill” and “butter the size of a hen’s egg.”
Remember early cooking was often done on wood burning stoves without the benefit of a temperature gage. This reminds me of an older friend of mine who once told me “cook it till it’s done.”
My favorite of Scaggs stories concerned Mary M. Peter’s Hickory Nut Cake, 1889.
In another time, all nuts for cakes were gathered from the ground in their shells. I’ve seen my mother and cooks like Molly Doneghy smash and laboriously pick the nuts, often taking a lot longer than putting the cake together.
Scaggs said having no access to hickory nuts, she ordered them. To her surprise they came whole, not the pieces she had hoped for.
“I wrapped nuts in a tea towel and used an iron skillet to crack them,” she told a laughing audience, adding it was very noisy and labor intensive.
She highly recommends making sure to order hickory nuts shelled.
Accompanying Peter’s transcribed recipe in the book is a copy of her handwritten recipe.