Old, worn-out cookbooks preserve more than recipes

Lori Cooper flips through her grandmother Beryl Lovitz’s copies of “Second Helpings, Please!” and “The Pleasures of Your Food Processor” cookbooks.

Written in 1968 and 1979 respectively by the late Canadian author Norene Gilletz (and considered to be classics by many Jewish-Canadian households), Cooper is looking for the little notes left by her grandmother who died in 1998.

Lovitz would add check marks to recipes she liked (sole almandine) while writing “NO!” on the ones that she didn’t (broccoli latkes). The words “Fair — pokey to make” are written for a pineapple cheese chiffon cake recipe and a layered bar dessert, “pokey” being Lovitz’s word for complicated.

“Every time I see her handwriting and her comments it makes me laugh and smile because they’re so her. She was very opinionated and had this high-pitched voice. So, when I read the comments from her I hear her, ”said Cooper, who runs a Toronto-based media agency.

While Cooper still uses the books’ latkes recipe, she thinks of them more as a relic.

“A lot of the recipes either had ingredients that just didn’t appeal to me or have titles like ‘surprise casserole,’” she said.

Cookbooks are meant to express the authors’ identity, taste and philosophy around food. But when the person using the book starts writing their own notes in the margins, marking up the most-used recipes with stains, the book tells just as much about the user. Family photographs are considered the de facto heirlooms, but a marked-up cookbook, passed around the family circle gaining stains and tears along the way, becomes a moving artifact.

“It’s a window into the way a person operates and thinks. With these recipes, who was she entertaining or trying to impress?” said Cooper. “Who was the audience when she was making sole almandine? Which sections were used the most? The pages have food splatters, but you can tell the pastry pages are intact.”

Food marketer Danielle Jessica Rose also has her grandmother Lottie Rose’s copy of Gillettez’s “The Pleasures of Your Food Processor,” stuffed with additional recipes from newspaper clippings. Its cover is in tatters because it was accidentally placed on a hot stove coil decades ago.

“You knew she came to your house because there would be (an article torn) from the newspaper,” said Rose as she shared memories of her grandmother who lived to her late 80s and died about a decade ago. “She wasn’t the greatest cook, but I loved the recipes. When I saw the blintz recipe in the book with her drawings from Ella on how to fold them, and how they should look, it felt like her food from Ella was more thoughtful than I imagined.

In Welland, retired outreach worker Retta Collins got a hold of her grandmother Ethel Wilson’s 1905 edition of the “Blue Ribbon Cook Book.” Collins was born three years after Wilson’s death in 1960 so it was through anecdotes from her father de ella and the book de ella that she learned about her grandmother de ella (who was left-handed, judging by the slant in the writing on the cookbook’s pages).

Collins’ grandparents lived in a farming community east of Red Deer, Alta., in the early 1900s. According to her granddad de ella, Wilson was the best cook because she’d always feed the farm workers well while their neighbors would “give them oatmeal and boring stuff.”

When Collins came in possession of the book in 1990, her father talked about a green tomato relish Wilson used to make. Sure enough, she found the recipe in the book.

“It was green tomatoes, onions, pickling spice, vinegar and sugar. It said to start with a peck of tomatoes, which is a lot, so I had to break it down into cups. My dad was a quiet guy, but you can tell his eyes from him were shining and he just said ‘yep’ when he tried it. It’s a story close to my heart because I knew I nailed it.”

Collins was glad her dad got to taste his mother’s green tomato relish one more time before his death two years later. The relish, meanwhile, lives on. When Collins moved to her new home from Ella at the start of the pandemic, her 87-year-old neighbor complained about having too many green tomatoes. Ella’s Collins and her husband turned them all into the relish and gave their neighbor half of what they made.

“I have tied it all. It’s odd, and that’s what I love about this. I never knew (my grandmother) but she’s rolled up in these relationships I have now,” Collins said.

Cookbooks don’t just tell the story of how their individual owners cooked, but the life they lived at the time and what they had access to.

Ryan Whibbs has his great-great grandmother Honora Kavanaugh’s 1876 copy of “The Home Cook Book” written by the “ladies of Toronto and chief cities and towns in Canada” from when she lived in the township of Douro, Peterborough.

Kavanaugh signed the book as Mrs. Augustus Whibbs, her husband’s name.

Tucked into the book, which is wrapped in newsprint from that era, is a souvenir card from a visit to Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré in Quebec, a memorial card for mass for either Kavanaugh’s husband or son, and a newspaper clipping for a tomato ketchup recipe that replaced the one in the book that uses mushrooms as a base.

“You can see the times change with this book,” said Whibbs, chair of Red River College’s School of Hospitality and Culinary Arts in Winnipeg.

Among the handwritten recipes for buttermilk cake Kavanaugh added in the back pages of the book are recipes to cure bunions, make soap and treat hair loss (apparently sprinkling cornmeal on the scalp helps).

“It gives you a sense of people who didn’t have ready access to a drugstore or dispensary,” Whibbs noted. “You get the sense they didn’t go to the doctor unless it was very severe.”

There’s also a handwritten reminder in lieu of a calendar: “Always remember the fourth full moon in the new year we’ll have Easter Sunday.”

But not everyone’s grandmothers are able to pass on cookbooks full of scribbles. Richard Sigesmund, a pharmacist in East York and owner of beer import company Gleemer Imports, says his baba Luba Rutman didn’t read or write. Instead, Sigesmund sought to permanently capture her recipes and cooking habits from her 27 years ago.

Sigesmund describes his baba, a Holocaust survivor who lived to “99-and-a-half,” as a “Seinfeldian character.”

“She had a dark, dirty sense of humor that she only said in Yiddish,” he explained. “Ella She was a lovable curmudgeon.”

His family lived in Winnipeg during the ’70s and ’80s when the cookbooks available at the time “were recipes for playing bridge, not for after going to the synagogue.”

As a teen, Sigesmund’s zaydeh would grate the potatoes for his baba to make latkes. After his grandfather’s death, Sigesmund took over the prep work and began to take an interest in his grandmother’s cooking, wanting her to make her cabbage rolls, honey cake, pretzel buns and what he believes to be an original creation of hers, the “kliskelach ” — a boiled and fried potato gnocchi served with vinegar.

“She had little patience so you had to choose the days when she was in the mood. There was one day where I could ask her but you couldn’t get her to repeat the things she said so you had to write everything down quickly,” Sigesmund said. “She also guessed the measurements, and she would use the Yiddish word for pinch a lot.”

Seven years after his baba’s death, Sigesmund still has those hastily written recipes kept in a folder that he takes out whenever he’s making a bundt cake. It never crossed his mind to digitize them.

“That’s not what it’s about. The joy comes from the memory of having her impatiently explaining things in the kitchen and me trying to scribble everything down,” he said. “Memories can fade, and it’s nice to have that physical connection to remember her personality de ella and connect with my youth.”

For Sigesmund and other home cooks, the stained pages and smudged scribbles mean as much as the recipes themselves.

“Having these papers makes me remember so much of that day. The sun was out. I was on her right side of her. I kept telling her to slow down because her directions from her were so crazy. For her coffee cake de ella she’d say ‘a quarter cup of coffee, but not really,’ ”Sigesmund said as he recalled the day he made his first records of baba’s kitchen craft.

“When we cooked, instead of drinking water out of a glass she drank out of a one-liter measuring cup,” he said. “She was just a funny little old woman who also got pleasure feeding people and loved having people in her house de ella.”

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