Foodie Friday: Communicating Through Recipes

Last Christmas, my husband opened an unexpected gift from his mother. She had framed a favorite family recipe, dictated to her mother by her grandmother, and given it to us.

Apple Butter Recipe

It reads:

Apple Butter

Add about half as much sugar as sieved, cooked apples. Cook until thick then flavor with about 2 tsp cinnamon per gallon and 1/2 to 3/4 tsp. cloves per gallon. Cook a while longer then seal in clean, hot jars. Also can use all-spice.

And below that, my mother-in-law affixed this label: “Written by Martha Lee Long, as dictated by her mother, Olive Mary (Wright) Miller, circa 1970.”

My mother-in-law still makes this recipe every year and sends us jars of the sweet, gooey brown stuff (that’s it in the picture). My husband loves it for the taste, but also for how it reminds him of his grandmother, canning all manner of fruits and vegetables, grown in her garden on their New Mexico farm.

Grandmother Long died in 2004. When her husband followed, about five years later, my husband returned home with all of his grandmother’s canning supplies. We’ve used it a few times, following her directions for blackberry jam and tomato soup. But we’ll never match her output of canned green beans, chow-chow, apple butter and more, crammed tightly onto the shelves of her tiny, dark root cellar.

As we celebrate mothers this week — and women who inspire us all month — I’ve been thinking about how food is communication. It’s a living message from one generation to the next, told and retold in kitchens, on paper plates and good china, from mothers to daughters, grandmothers to grandsons. Men like my husband are completely at home in the kitchen, of course, but I think mothers still tend to be the keepers of the recipe box.

This apple butter recipe charms and vexes me at the same time. It’s obviously written from one cook to another who has watched her make this. In any other recipe, a direction as vague as “cook for a while longer” would make me twitch. How long? How hot? How do I cook the apples in the first place? I need numbers! I am a strictly by-the-recipe cook — no improv. But clearly Great-Grandmother Miller knew she’d said all her own daughter needed to know, and I envy the understanding that passed between them.

A couple of years ago, we moved my own mother into assisted living, and had an estate sale at the house where I grew up. One of my sisters made a point to save Mom’s recipe box and make fresh copies of the greatest hits inside for all of us. At that moment, I realized Mom wouldn’t be making her own potato salad anymore. And no matter how my sisters and I try to duplicate it, it’s never quite right. But we’ll keep trying, and sharing with our own families. That’s how we keep the conversation going.

Did you inherit any recipes from your mother or grandmother? What food defines tradition in your family? Tell us in the comments!

Happy eating — and happy Mother’s Day!

Erin O’Donnell

Co-Editor, Kansas Women Bloggers

2 thoughts on “Foodie Friday: Communicating Through Recipes

  1. Carol J. Martin (Female in Motion) says:

    I have a number of recipes from my grandmothers, aunts and mother. I made sure to have them written in their own handwriting. Makes them more precious that way. One of our family favorites is a decadent coffee cake passed down for generations that is simply referred to as an “Aunt Fern.” Beautifully written, Erin!

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