The Tricky Business of Tasting the Past

Grandmas chicken pot pie recipe_blog

Behold what I call “The Shroud of Turin Chicken Pot Pie,” a scan of a page unearthed from the bottom of my grandmother Inez Monk Henderson’s recipe file. Folded carefully, it marked  an obvious attempt to capture in the barest forms a recipe she didn’t want to forget, or perhaps, had planned to give to someone else to decipher. She had made notes on the folded exteriors for recipes as well, one too faded to detect, the other for dill pickles.

I’ve been going through my family’s recipes as part of research for my third book. It’s best described as a multi-generational memoir with recipes. I don’t even show up until Chapter 6. (I’ve not quite figured out how to tackle that part, actually.) My mother’s recipes are a bit neater, captured in two spiral notebooks. Originally, grandma stuffed hers in an old accordion envelope, but in the late 1950s, someone gave her a green box and she transferred them all there. Grandma didn’t collect many recipes for daily cooking. It’s notable that nowhere in her files does she have any recipes for soup or roasts, for instance. Why would she? You made soup with leftovers and she knew all her standards by heart.  Older, more yellowed pieces of newspaper involved cakes made with mayonnaise or cookies starring cheap ingredients. Later recipes leaned toward more “elegant” or “modern” recipes for her time, such as Chicken Divan.

Mom and I think this page comes from the late 1940s. Notice the short-hand: “Two onion – cut up.” “One chicken – 3 1/2 pounds, boiled until tender.”Also, I point your attention to the absence of salt, pepper or other seasonings but the inclusion of “1 can mushrooms soup.” All of it in “chicken scratch,” how she referred to her own handwriting. She left formal education at age 13 in the early 1920s, when her father was killed in a lumber mill accident. She was forced to stay at home and help rear four  brothers and sisters. She married my grandfather, Charles, when she was 16 presumably because taking care of one husband was easier than a bunch of kids. Of course, she then proceeded to have five kids herself, most of them born in the grips of The Great Depression.

As I’ve wandered down this flour-and-bacon-grease-splattered memory lane, I’m struck by how the language of recipes changed even in the short years spanned in my grandmother’s recipe box. Some of the recipes she wrote or collected from friends were little more than ingredient lists with a couple of notes. Everyone understood the language of the kitchen. One of her recipes starts, “Kill and clean two good-sized chickens.”

She died in 1979, ahead of a world filled with arugula, sun-dried tomatoes and truffle oil. Yet, she also fell somehow ahead of the curve. She lived seasonally and organically for most of her life not because it was trendy or she worried about climate change or felt dissatisfied or disillusioned with her options at the supermarket. She grew up poor, so it wasn’t a choice. Up to the day she died at the untimely age of 69, she grew the vast majority of her vegetables. She and grandpa canned every autumn. They didn’t believe in store-bought jelly. When grandpa was alive, he grew his own pigs and made his own ham and bacon. They raised chickens and taught my mom at age 11 how to kill and clean them.

As I work through trying to recreate these dishes, as much as I long for a taste of the past, I have to admit how much I’ve been influenced by the present. That stewed chicken I loved so much as a kid? It tastes so bland to me now. More than once I’ve wondered, does every dish really need paprika? I’ve found myself adding garlic and cayenne, a hit of lemon or sprigs of fresh herbs to bring the flavor in line with the palate that I have now.

Which leads me to a dilemma. Do I present the recipes as I think they were made originally without any changes? Or do I adapt to modern palates? I think my grandmother would have loved garlic – she just never used it growing up, so it stayed in her blind spot. Sure, she made cakes with mayonnaise. But is that helpful or interesting, or just a culinary anachronism? Just what I am to do with those Campbell’s Soup-based casseroles?

When I wonder all of this, I think back to this recipe and to the spirit of my grandma, an outspoken pragmatist who herself was never a slave to a recipe. After all, for 26 years Inez lived in a remote town where the nearest store was a dozen miles away – and she never learned to drive. She could only cook with what she had on hand. Plus, she felt it a sin to let food go to waste. How else to explain minced rhubarb in a chocolate cake? Or sweet potatoes in chicken stew? Or that despite calling for butter, she made virtually everything with the bacon grease she kept in a coffee can on the back of her stove?

If I presented this dilemma to her, I know exactly what she’d say. “Really, Kathleen Inez, have you nothing better to do? Then go sweep the porch.” She’d shove a broom in my hand and send me out as she finished dinner the way she always cooked: A bit of this, a bit of that and a fistful of green beans leftover from last night and why not just throw in that extra gravy? Grandma was not a chef, but she a real cook. She was driven by love and economy, and in neither could she afford to be a purist.

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17 Comments

Filed under Family recipes, food writing

17 responses to “The Tricky Business of Tasting the Past

  1. Kelly

    About the dilemma – if you haven’t already thought of it, you should do both. Ingredient availability changes, as would your grandmother’s meals.

    • Kathleen Flinn

      Yeah, I have thought about it, but I only have so much space. So I think I may write the recipe as its adapted but explain how it was originally made. What do you think?

      • Kelly

        Space is always an issue. If I was still editing, I’d agree with adapted recipes plus the colorful stories of how they were originally made. And I’d add links to the original recipes – which might drive more attention to your website. The links might be scans of the recipes as originally written – they could turn into whole chapters per recipe.

        Be wary, though, of the “Top Chef” effect. Several of their shows have challenges that involve updating old recipes or classic dishes.

        I would still pick at least one dinner from your significant relatives and print both original and adapted – almost a compare-and-contrast essay. It might be fun to try and find the ingredients for the originals and demonstrate how these ingredients have changed. Even the potatoes would be different.

  2. Pat

    Pastured chicken is very tasty with little seasoning. Mass produced chickens have no flavor.

  3. I would leave all the recipies as they are.. Once you adapt them, they no longer remain hers but become yours.. If you want to include a chapter of “adapting the old for today’s taste” that would be fine.. But if your celebrating recipies from the past… Then lets see them..

  4. rachaelwarrington

    What a timely post! I have been struggling with this very issue…I have my mother-in-laws recipe box. The recipes are written with cream of soup whatever….something I do not use in my own cooking. I think what I will do is copy the recipes as they are, then write a second recipe using fresher and healthier ingredients.
    Most of her best loved recipes are not even written down! And now her memory is failing her and very few of them are remembered by family members. Ask now about what your mom cooked and write it down.

    • Kathleen Flinn

      I know, I feel like I am always grilling my mom these days on recipes! Yeah the whole ‘add a can of soup’ thing I’m still struggling with, but I think I’ll just reconstruct them without the can but offer it as an option, since that’s what they used.

  5. I love this post! A few years ago, I started writing down my grandmother’s recipes (the ones she cooked by heart and hadn’t written down) and also making a “memory trail” in my cookbooks and of when and why I cook certain things. Family recipes and food memories are so unique and lovely. I think you should present both version (your grandmother’s “original” and your “updated original.” 🙂

  6. Jeanne Verville

    Kathleen,
    I like the idea of presenting both versions of the recipies.
    Following is a segment from the family history I am compiling. Special note for the Suet Pudding and Pastied.

    Feeding a Family of 12

    My father, Francis Verville, was born in the Copper Country town of Hancock, Michigan in 1912. He was one of seven boys and three girls. His French Canadian father, Archie, was a successful builder, his second-generation German mother, Cora, was an amazingly competent woman. All ten of the children turned out to be responsible and happy adults.

    Feeding such a large family must have been a time-consuming and hard job, even with help. Cora baked 10 loaves of bread each week, the aromatic loaves cooling on wires over the stove, a temptation for anyone who passed. She also baked Lebkuchen and Stollen, traditional German breads. Hot cereal and toast with homemade jam or jelly and fresh butter served with coffee and cream was the standard breakfast. (GE introduced the first toasters in 1909.) My own mother used Cora’s “kuchen” recipe on holidays while I was growing up. I loved buttered toast slices from the large round loaf of sweet bread filled with candied fruit, especially the slightly crusty crust brushed with egg and cinnamon sugar.

    The family had a chicken coup in the backyard. Roasted chicken was served frequently. Other main dishes included stew with dumplings, ham, roasted lamb, meat loaf, ham loaf, chicken croquettes, chicken with rice and vegetables, French pork pie (turkure), Cornish pasties, noodle ring and soups. As strict Catholics, fish was served every Friday. Cora bought live trout or white fish from fishermen who fished from the beach on Lake Superior. White fish from Lake Superior is a delicious firm-fleshed, tasty fish. Even so, some of the children, especially Bernard and Milton, did not care for fish and they wouldn’t eat it then and or ever.

    For vegetables Cora used fresh vegetables from the backyard garden in the summer, and those she had canned in the winter. Bottles of carrots, beans, crabapple sauce, pie cherries and peaches lined the shelves in the basement canning cupboard. Two or three dozen pecks of potatoes were stored in a bin in the basement and mashed potatoes were served daily. Every Sunday, German potato dumplings (Kartoffel Klöße) were served with either roast beef or roasted chicken.

    If an was ingredient was missing Cora sent the children on missions to the grocery store for 5 cents worth of slat pork for a batch of beans or a round of oleo. There they were surrounded by the smells coming from kegs of salt herring, chickens hanging on hooks by their head, legs of beef, open vats of sauerkraut and pickled pig’s feet. Bunches of bananas hung by a rope from the ceiling, over bins of potatoes and rutabagas. There were boxes of tempting cookies and an open box of Brazil nuts, called “nigger toes” at the time.

    A favorite side dish was “steamed suet pudding,” like a bread loaf and “delicious with gravy,” according to my Uncle Milton. Uncle Milt told me Cora made this by boiling lard and flour and then hanging it to drain. I suspect she may have used a recipe I found in a very old copy of Current Captivating Copper Country Cooking, complied by a First Presbyterian Church Circle: combine 1 cup suet (fat trimmed off beef or other meat), potatoes, raisins, nutmeg, carrots, salt, sour milk, brown sugar, salt, cinnamon, baking power and flour) and bake. For desert, pie, including cherry pie made with cherries from the family cherry tree, was served. My father was a sucker for cherry pie.

    Keep in mind that there were no electric refrigerators in those days. Cora had a large icebox and an enclosed porch off the kitchen for keeping things cool. The iceman would come around on a regular basis to deliver large chunks of either natural or artificial ice. (General Electric produced the first mechanical ice box in 1911, and “electric ice boxes” were produced in the early 1930s, using Freon as the refrigerant.)

    A Note on Pasties. I found a note from my father to his mother, tucked into Copper Country Cooking, that read, “Mother – I’ll get a pasty for lunch. O.K.?” Her response: “Francis: Never mind the pasty. Two nice ham sandwiches in your box with home made bread. Mother O.K.?” His reply, “O.K. Sweetie! You win. Thanks.” This note reflects the loving relationships Cora had with her children and brings up the subject of pasties.
    Pasties were a staple in Hancock. [Pronounce with a short “a” – these are not the things strippers wear.) There were even pasty shops. The pasty was introduced to the Keweenaw by minors from Cornwall, England, who came to work in the copper mines. Basically, pasties were an offshoot of meat, steak or kidney pie, a hearty meal in itself. But pasties had only one crust which held in all the goodies, a self-contained meal in a crust easily eaten with one hand, which made for a practical lunch in the dark, damp tunnels of the mines. Miners came to work with hot pasties in a pail, wrapped in layers of newspaper. Some mines built huge ovens on the surface to keep the miners’ pasties hot until it was time to eat.
    To make Pasties, start by rolling out a circle of dough made from flour, shortening and salt. The shortening could be lard, suet, oleo, oil or even bacon grease or chicken fat, depending on the household budget. Then pile, on one side of the dough, raw chopped meat of the less choice cut, and thinly sliced raw potatoes, onions and turnips, all dotted with butter. (The meat is supposed to be chopped, the vegetables sliced.) The unfilled half of dough is then flipped over the filled side and the edges are crimped in a wavy seam that holds the whole pasty together. Crimping on the side rather the top made it easier for the miner to hold the pasty while he took a big bite. The Cornish Pasty is unique among similar foods from around the world. It is believed that pasties originated in the middle ages.
    My father, Francis, and his sister Winnie helped Mother Verville make pasties. Later, my mother made pasties as a treat for my father, and I learned to make them from her. As an adult I made them for picnics or just for dinner because they are so tasty, especially served with ketchup. I had an old friend of my father’s generation in Seattle who grew up in Michigan. I used to make pasties for him, which he considered a wonderful treat.

  7. Kathleen, I’m delighted to know you are in the process of writing book #3, and I love the theme of the book. While I would personally love to see both the original and the modern adaptation of each recipe, I know that there will be editorial considerations. Therefore, I agree with Kelly (above) who stated that a possible alternative would be to feature some of the recipes in both versions, and provide links to the others. Whatever you choose, I am sure it will be fun to read. Recipes are like little nuggets of memory, providing us with a sensory means of “time travel” to our past.
    I worked for years to reconstruct my grandmother’s recipe for Old English Date pudding. My grandmother never used a recipe. Over her later years, when I was interested enough to pay attention, the outcome of the dish changed. It was exciting to (finally!) figure out what needed to be changed to restore the recipe to its earlier, better, result.
    I’ll be anxiously awaiting the new book!

    • Kathleen Flinn

      Thanks, all of these comments have been really helpful! I think I’ll be doing one version in the book but explaining how it was either adapted or how someone could adapt it themselves so that in a way, you get both. I haven’t radically changed them so I don’t know if it’s necessary to do two versions. And thanks for your enthusiasm! It is helping me get back to writing this afternoon!

  8. Gloria Carlson

    I heard you interviewed on WPR last week and would like, if possible, to be one of your volunteer recipe testers. Is there anything I can do to apply for this or a process I can proceed with. Thank you for considering this.

  9. What a wonderful post. How lucky you are to have this very direct link to your grandmother’s thoughts and cooking practices. Thanks for sharing.

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