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Life Happens: Family recipes bring the generations closer

The other day, I found my great-grandmother’s cookbook in a box in my basement. I had completely forgotten that my grandma had given it to me many years ago, along with her own recipe books, handwritten on brown paper.

The cookbook was printed in 1881. It is almost too fragile to open and the 132-year-old paper is brittle with age.

Finding the book got me thinking about the legacy of grandmothers, traditions and family recipes that are handed down, through the generations. It also prompted me to remember both of my grandmothers and their signature styles of cooking.

My grandmothers were as different from each other as apples and oranges. My paternal grandma was born in 1896. She was an intelligent, tough teacher and artist who grew acres of fruits and vegetables; her gardens were all tilled by her own shovel and fueled by her determination and strength. She kept her original hybrid stove, complete with gas burners and a wood-burning oven, which she used until she was 80 years old.

She feared nothing. She canned and preserved everything. She was never happier than when she was outside, working in her garden.

She could also make a flawless baked Alaska, whipping the egg whites with an old hand-powered egg beater and browning the meringue to perfection in her wood-burning oven. She once gave me her recipe for charlotte russe, an impressive dessert that is constructed of, among other things, ladyfingers made from homemade sponge cake. It is a process, rather than a recipe.

Her standards for us were high, but the twinkle in her eyes rewarded us when we had done well. I loved her to death.

My maternal grandmother was also a tough cookie, but her lap was the best place in the world. She spun a cocoon of domesticity that was warm, nurturing and a safe harbor in the storm that was my childhood.

She also could cook circles around anyone; but she never used a recipe. No one can ever duplicate her banana cream pie, because she never wrote the recipe down. She never even used a measuring cup or spoon. Her work was all done by eye. Perfect crusts were made by the way the dough felt in her hand. She could tell when it was right, by touch.

The stuffing I make for Thanksgiving every year is my maternal grandmother’s recipe. There are no measurements; I’ve never seen it written down. But I can duplicate it every year, just like my mother could, when I was growing up. It is the “recipe” that has no recipe and I think it is the best stuffing in the world. I wish there were stuffing contests so her version could win.

I do have one recipe from her: the cake that I asked for, every year for my birthday. It’s a simple white cake that is the best I have ever tasted. I called it “Nanny’s cake” after her, of course. I don’t know if it ever had another name.

This time of year, during which many of us are baking, is a time to honor the recipes that have been handed down through the generations.

This Christmas, my sisters and I will make the cookies that my mother and grandmothers always made. From my paternal grandmother comes Pfeffernusse and lebkuchen. From my maternal grandma comes big, puffy, sour cream cutouts, frosted with sprinkles. From my mother’s recipes, I will make dainty bon-bon cookies, stuffed with green and red cherries.

There is no time like the holidays to connect with past generations, and there is no better way to do that than with food.
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