I don't want recipes to fade into the pages of a worn-out cookbook or the echoes of a loved one's kitchen.
In some ways, my journey to decipher and recreate family recipes started with Justin's family dishes. I was gifted his grandma Jackie Eslinger’s 1953 Better Homes and Garden New Cook Book after she passed in 2012. When I first opened opened it, I worried the spine would disintegrate, and I would be the clumsy clod responsible for ruining Justin's grandmother's cherished book. Fortunately, the cover has remained intact, and I have spent many years gently exploring this recipe time capsule.
This cookbook was obviously published in a very different era. For one thing, it's full of outdated assumptions about who is, or should be, in the kitchen. The intro letter is addressed to “Dear Homemaker” and many chapter dividers include illustrations of smiling women in dresses, pulling perfect dishes out of their ovens---in heels. 😏👠
I'm particularly intrigued, though, by the types of recipes that fill this cookbook. Inside, hundreds of five-hole-punched recipes barely hang on the metal binder rings. There are chapter titles like “Jiffy Cooking” and “Table Settings and Entertainment.” In the “Cakes, Frostings, and Fillings” chapter, there's an entire section devoted to shortening cakes--back when Crisco was touted as a "healthy" replacement for lard and butter.
Turning the pages, I imagine moments when Grandma Eslinger herself had this cookbook open on her counter. Dried splotches of batter on the Banana-Nut Bread recipe. Grandma Eslinger’s scrawled notes in blue ink, a reminder to adjust the recipe to her preference (or her particular oven): 325° - 45 min.
Sandwiched within each chapter, there are also hundreds of clippings and handwritten recipes, yellowing and smudged with grease splatters from past attempts. Sometimes recipes are written on paper scraps or receipts. Many have just a list of ingredients, but no instructions on how to bring them all together.
I come from a Portuguese Azorean family where recipes largely haven't been written down. Instead, techniques were shared in the kitchen, if they were passed down at all. It wasn't until the 1940s that the illiteracy rate in Portugal was below 50%--and the illiteracy rate was higher in rural and remote regions like the Azores. My maternal grandfather didn't know how to read or write, and my parents immigrated as adults to the U.S. with 4th grade educations.
So, I'm fascinated by and admire this treasure of recipes from Justin's grandmother. However, many of these recipes are still puzzles with their own missing pieces. It's like my own set of GBBO technical challenges, where there's only an ingredient list or key methods are missing. I research, test, and try to fit together the missing pieces to get that final bake that clicks into a family memory.
I knew Grandma Eslinger for about 6 years before she passed, and in that time we often talked about family and baking. In her 80s and 90s, she wasn’t able to bake anymore, but she would still share tips, recipes, and memories of her favorite dishes and desserts. Before she passed away, she gave me her copy of the sugar cookie recipe that was Justin’s favorite as a child. On the bottom, in her signature handwriting, is written: Chad’s and Justin’s cookies.
This is the recipe I use for basic sugar cookies, including rolling and cutting shapes. You'll notice in the photo above, though, that this original recipe has pecans and is rolled into logs. When Grandma Eslinger handed me this recipe, she told me how she adapted this recipe to make these the "Grandma Eslinger" way. But, she never wrote it down.
This is why I delight in researching, capturing, and recording recipes--and why I want to help others do it, too. Baking and eating "Jackie's cookies" inevitably brings up memories of Grandma Eslinger and their family farm. We've also started building our own memories and stories with this sugar cookie recipe. These are stories and memories I may never have heard or created otherwise. These are stories that have gently or substantially re-shaped me, the way stories do. The way sharing food does. And that's just one recipe.