Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Importance of Passing Down Recipes

I must admit that I have procrastinated writing my Apples & Thyme entry for this month for two reasons: my life has been feeling a bit out of control and not allowing me to feel my usual ability to communicate, and secondly, I wasn't sure what I wanted to write about. Of course, my mother always is in the forefront of my mind, and I've written about her many, many times. Some days her absence feels so strong, filling me with sadness and an inability to write about her. Other times, it is easier.

After her death last October, my older sister and I sifted through her huge collection of recipes - she filed them neatly in binders, categorized and put handwritten notes on her favorites. We came across three - 3x5 index cards, each with the same recipe but each one having one of her three daughter's names on it. On the back, she had written "October 1975"! The recipe was simply labeled "Cornbread", but it wasn't just any cornbread - it was our Nanna's delicious cornbread. She wanted to make sure that we each had a copy of this legendary recipe.
Here's a little background: "Nanna" was my mother's mother and was raised in the back woods of West Virginia. I've written about here before. My grandfather was from Georgia and later Tennessee, and they settled in Ohio. They continued there humble, southern cooking traditions throughout their life. One of the staples at the dinner table was cornbread, and my Nanna's was the best. Cornbread from the south is savory, while the cornbreads I've tasted on the west coast are usually a little sweet. I have never gotten used to that sweet flavor and still prefer, and can taste to this day, an old-fashioned Southern cornbread slathered with butter.

When I read the recipe I called my older sister to question a few things. First of all, we don't believe they sell self-rising cornmeal anymore, although perhaps they do somewhere. I went on line and found this information on the Aunt Jemima Corn Meal site: To make one cup of self-rising cornmeal:
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup + 3 tablespoons Quaker or Aunt Jemima Corn Meal

The second thing I asked my sister is "Why did Nanna's cornmeal always taste soooo savory, almost like there was some bacon in it?" This recipe doesn't indicate anything like that. She immediately knew the answer. Nanna used to coat her pan with bacon grease before putting the batter in. Ah hah! Another old-time southerner's trick!

I remember my mom carrying on the cornbread tradition by making a simple meal of it with some cooked beans and coleslaw. Yum!

The point I started to make about the importance of passing down recipes is that a recipe such as this, which was never written down by my Nanna would have been lost if my mother hadn't taken the time to write it down for all to remember. We were all touched by mom's foresight at making a copy for each of us because she knew how important it would be to us one day - over 30 years later!

Over and over again we have read stories in this Apples and Thyme event of people wishing that they had a certain recipe one of their mothers or grandmothers used to make, but now it is impossible to get because the person has passed on and no one knows exactly how they had made it. Which leads me to why I love this event so much - it honors those age-old family cooking traditions and encourages us to write about them for posterity's sake. It even encourages us to seek out those living members of our family and ask them for their secrets before it is too late to do so.
Please visit this month's Apples & Thyme host - Mele Cotte - to see the full round up, which will posted sometime before the end of the month.


Chloe said...

I love the spirit of Apples & Thyme. This is a great reminder to capture the recipes while we can.

Anonymous said...

Hi Jeni,
So true. Too bad many people are too young to realize how important the recipes will be to them someday. I'm lucky to have watched my grandma cook first hand.My mom even calls me for my grandmas recipes :)

'A Tuscan view.....from Umbria' said...

I always love to read these posts. This one is beautifully written and very true.

My mum is the guardian of all my grandparents recipes. Both my grandad and grandma were good cooks, they used to fight like cat and dog in the kitchen especially when cooking for a special occasion as they didn't like to share the 'glory'. It makes me smile to remember them ribbing each other about their creations. Thanks Jeni and Happy Easter.

Chris said...

I love this post. Bacon grease...our moms and grams knew how to cook!

The Passionate Palate said...

Chloe - great to hear from you and yes, capture them while you can!!!

Maryann - you know the importance of traditions very well. I always admire your posts.

Tuscan View/Judith - thank you. I loved your description of your grandparents! Buona Pasqua.

Chris - I agree...bacon grease is underrated!

african vanielje said...

Jeni I am quite choked up at the thought of your mom sitting and writing out three copies of recipes, perhaps thinking about this very day, and writing your names on the back of each. Perhaps it was her way of talking to you from beyond. How lovely to think of her looking after you all, even after she was gone. Hats off to your mom, and I will definitely try this cornbread. Happy Easter Bella!

The Passionate Palate said...

AV - yes, I know exactly what you are saying. I got choked up too and was so touched by mom's foresight, and also felt touched by her now. What a great mom I had!!!

Bella Baita View said...

Wise words to live by, from someone who wishes she could locate some old family favorites.

The Passionate Palate said...

BBV - I think we all need that reminder. I need to write down my own recipes, too!

Absolute Vanilla (& Atyllah) said...

Love these old recipes and associated memories - beautiful and special combination.

Susan said...

Bacon grease, that's something my grandmother would do, very rustic and homey. Lovely post, Jeni. The ritual of collecting your mother's recipes is a fine way to keep connected with the past.

Anonymous said...

from Linda:
one of my son's lives in Manhattan. he is single, handsome and loves to cook for friends.well, one year, he told me he wanted nothing for Christmas, that he had everything he ever needed......except for one thing. he asked if i would make him his own personal cookbook from me. he wanted his childhood favorites, and the food i made that he loved. it was all written done by hand..much don't even have exact measurements..i do it by feel and a pinch of this and a handful of that. he treasures it...i went all the way back to the 70's for him.
i use to not give out my recipes, and then when i lost one, i called my sister, as she was the only one i had shared it with..and i learned my lesson, and received my treasure.
thank you for graciously sharing yours........what a pleasure'

The Passionate Palate said...

Absolute Vanilla - It is a special combination!

Susan - thanks! I admit to loving bacon grease!

Linda - Welcome and thanks for sharing your story. What a wonderful thing to have the next generation interested in preserving your recipes!

M&Ms... said...

You're stories touch my heart!
I just thought of cornbread this morning. Got distracted and started to surf the blogs I love. Thus, am sitting here at my computer table with a CornBread mix box between the keyboard and me...and then I find this post on your site! I know, compared your Nana's recipe, am taking the lazy way out..