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Recipes As Family Heirlooms, Love Letters To Future Generations

This article is more than 7 years old.

There is a battered black and white metal box sitting on my kitchen counter. Inside it is the story of a woman I miss.

It belonged to my maternal grandmother, my Nana. It is stuffed with hand-written index cards and old newspaper clippings that chronicle the life of a woman who didn’t cook, but who wrote out instructions and notes to the various women who cooked for her dinner parties and family meals.

Inside the box are gems from another time: endive slathered with cream cheese and toasted nuts, steak tartare (back in the days when one could “safely” eat raw beef), calves’ liver, and pot roast. In my Nana’s elegant pen is one recipe, recorded on a torn piece of stationery from the Dartmouth Alumni Fund, called simply “Salad.”

Nana's Salad

Serve on a flat tray or wooden tray.
[Water]Cress with all stems removed. Think bed. Very thin slices red onion.
Long slices of very ripe avacado which has been well soused with garlicky French dressing so that dressing drips down cress.
Sprinkle with dill.

There’s a lot of information about food, class and ’60s entertaining packed into the language of that simple recipe. But, for me, most important are the memories it revives.


I am 10-years-old and sitting at her long, perfectly polished Manhattan dining-room table, eating this exact salad, cloth napkin draped across my lap, listening to my beloved grandmother talk about books and libraries. I am pretending I am a sophisticated city girl and not the suburban girl I play in real life.

In the last few months, by sheer happenstance, I rediscovered recipes from both of my grandmothers’ and my husband’s families.

My cousin recently wrote to tell me she had uncovered a pile of recipes from Lulu, my paternal grandmother. She was an avid baker, and I long to recreate her famed butter cookies. I had thought that they were, like Lulu, gone forever. Knowing the recipe still exists is like rediscovering a piece of my past.

Lulu's Butter Cookies

butter cookies

1/2 lb. butter
1 cup sugar
1 egg yolk
2 cups sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon

Spread. Bake 25 minutes at 300 degrees

By baking these cookies, I imagine, I might come to know my grandmother in a way I never did when she was alive. That in these recipes, with their teaspoons and level cups, I will find revealing clues. I will bake the cookies, dust them generously with powdered sugar the way Lulu always did, and serve them to my now-grown daughters, and a piece of family history will not be forgotten.

When my husband and I decided to get married after years of living together, my future mother-in-law joked that once I was officially part of the family she would tell me the secret ingredient in the family’s famous pickled herring. During the Depression, my husband’s grandmother made the dish in the garage of her Long Island home for extra income. It became so well known that it was served at the White House to President and Mrs. Roosevelt.

For me, finding these family recipe collections is more powerful than unearthing an old photo album or a cherished piece of clothing with the lingering scent of perfume. It lets me peek into my forebears’ everyday life and to participate in writing the history of our family.

Several weeks after our wedding, my mother-in-law made good on her promise: She gave me the full recipe for Eva Kallman’s pickled herring in cream sauce. My mother-in-law turns 90 this year and no longer cooks for herself, but we were cleaning out a closet recently and found that recipe. I am determined to recreate the herring, and I will treasure that family heirloom as well.

For me, finding these family recipe collections is more powerful than unearthing an old photo album or a cherished piece of clothing with the lingering scent of perfume. It lets me peek into my forebears’ everyday life and to participate in writing the history of our family.

It makes me think about the women in the camps of Birkenau who, with nothing to eat and nothing left to live for, managed to exchange and record their recipes.

"To be sure, nothing but food could satisfy their physical hunger and counteract severe malnutrition, but recipe sharing had its salutary effects," writes Dr. Myrna Goldenberg in “Cookbooks and Concentration Camps: Unlikely Partners."

"Ironically, 'food talk,' especially the exchange of recipes, boosted women's sense of community. As women recollected recipes, they taught one another the art of cooking and baking, and, in the process of teaching, they reclaimed their importance and dignity."

Why recipes? Why not love letters or diaries? I can only imagine that sharing and recording recipes and Jewish culinary traditions felt like the most important way of telling the world they were here, that they had families whom they cooked for and loved.

Leaving behind a recipe is like sending a love letter to future generations. I suppose that’s why I write cookbooks: to share my recipes. Recently I have come to realize it’s also a way of making sure that, when I’m gone, the food, the recipes and the spirit of my kitchen will live on.


Nana's Luncheon Platter

platter edit

Serves one

1. Shredded lettuce covering plate
2. Cup of cocktail sauce (horseradish and lemon in center)
3. Shrimp around it (half resting on tomato slice)
4. Large slices of tomato around outside
5. Asparagus in between slices. Accent sprinkled on tomato and asparagus (put a couple extra shrimp around little glass)

Nana's Chicken Liver

1/2 pound chicken liver
Saute with 3 medium size onions until tender in margarine or butter
Hard boil 3 eggs and chop together for 1/2 hour. This is the secret of it. Do not put in blender, but chop. Add chicken fat as needed to soften. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Put in a square plastic jar — just the right size to full it so that when it comes out it is shaped in a mold. Make early in the morning, or the day before.

Nana's Luncheon Platter — Variation

luncheon platter edit

1. Shredded lettuce
2. Ice cream dipper of crab meat in center (fix with dressing and chopped celery first)
3. Surround with tomato, asparagus, artichoke hearts, green pepper rings, and bias slices of cucumber. Sprinkle with accent and garlic powder over artichokes.

Lulu's Rice Pudding

Rice Pudding

1 qt. mlk
1 tablespoon rice
4 tablespoons sugar
1/2 tablespoon flour

Cook slowly.

Lulu's Lace Cookies

Lace Cookies

1/2 cup flour
1/2 cup oatmeal
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
4 tablespoons sugar
4 tablespoons brown sugar
4 tablespoons maple syrup
1/4 pound butter

Heat slow oven.


This program aired on April 3, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

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