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The Legacy of Food

One of my most cherished possessions is something I don’t actually use very often, but every time I open it, I am transported back to a childhood that was regularly punctuated by holiday and vacation gatherings of extended family and frequent Sunday dinners at my grandparents’ farms. This treasure is a battered copy of Betty Crocker’s Picture Cookbook from the mid-1950s. For me this book is a family heirloom, a legacy from the past. By the strange magic of memory, opening this cookbook brings back all the flavors, smells, and people of my life; it instantly evokes faces and voices that are now gone or in distant places.

The book was given to my mother, probably at a wedding shower, and decades later it shows evidence of her heavy use—the pages are spotted, loose, or taped in place, and the covers are falling off. The book’s endpapers are filled with notes and favorite recipes in my mother’s scrawling handwriting, my great-grandmother’s wobbly scribble and my Aunt Mary’s flowing script. Recipes appear in my childish hand as well, and my husband has added a few more recent notes of his own. Despite its rather shabby appearance, Betty Crocker still lives on a shelf where I see it daily. I reach for it to select a recipe only rarely—it is the source of my family’s favorite chocolate birthday cake and the original basis of my “must-have” Thanksgiving turkey stuffing, but for the most part, my culinary style has gone in other directions. The book’s assortment of household and family hints still makes me smile though; among others, the suggestions include recommending the young housewife put her feet up and rest while the “little ones” nap each day and remind her to wear fresh lipstick and a clean apron when greeting a tired husband at the end of his work day. There are numerous kitchen tips as well, many of which are still useful today.

Recipes by heart

Most of the cooks of my childhood didn’t often use printed recipes; as farmers in Minnesota they sat down to hearty plates of meat, potatoes, vegetables, pickles and breads each day. Baked goods were on the table at almost every meal in the form of homemade breads, cookies, sweet rolls, cakes and pies. I can still see and taste so much of it—my aunts’ annual batches of holiday candies and cookies; the angel food cake that my mother would split and fill with whipped cream and strawberries in season; my mother’s face when she complimented my paternal grandfather on a particularly tender roast—and he told her it was bear, not beef; my paternal grandmother serving up the green pea and cheese salad that she was convinced was my father’s favorite; my great-grandma frying up fresh fish at her woodstove. Some foods and menus seemed written in stone, so little did they vary from year to year: milky oyster stew on Christmas Eve; tea and toast for upset tummies; a ham served with scalloped potatoes at Easter; old-fashioned, spicy, coarsely ground wieners, roasted on sticks over a bonfire at great-grandma’s cottage in the north woods; and grilled cheese sandwiches with tomato soup when kids ran home from school for a quick lunch.

Traditions lost

Food is a legacy that has always been part of preserving a country’s culture and traditions and even language, as well as fostering family traditions and memories, just as mine have been saved. As Western food products and fast food outlets have spread around the world and gained popularity in other countries, traditional foods have often been set aside, especially by young people. In Japan for example, so many people have lost touch with traditional foods since World War II that “food education” classes have become common in schools. These classes include farm and market visits, and instruction in preparing various traditional dishes, including noodles, fish and rice. Once among the healthiest populations in the world, the Japanese are developing food-related health problems that mirror our own.

The same problems are showing up in the Mediterranean countries. The traditional diet of this region has long been considered one of the best dietary models to help one gain longevity and avoid cardiovascular disease, diabetes and weight problems. However, a recent article in the International Herald Tribune ( indicates that both children and adults in Mediterranean countries are now eating more American-style fast food and convenience foods and paying the health costs. Many children have been found to have very high cholesterol levels and are developing diabetes. The numbers of overweight and obese children, have skyrocketed in Greece—the explanation may have something to do with the poverty and lack of food in that country during earlier generations; parents who grew up hungry often find it difficult to deny food and treats to their children. As in Japan, Greek officials are teaching nutrition in schools, using a food pyramid based on the traditional Mediterranean diet.

The early days

This is all a huge change from the way our ancestors ate. The earliest colonists in America brought their English recipes and methods of food preparation and preservation with them. They quickly learned that their new home was not always hospitable and familiar foods were not always easy to grow. Native Americans saved many colonists from starvation by teaching them which wild plants were safe to eat and how to grow the corn that would sustain them. New cooking methods were introduced as well; in 1705, Robert Beverley wrote of some of these practices in The History and Present State of Virginia. He told of being taught the Native American “barbacueing” procedure of laying meat “upon Sticks rais’d upon Forks at some distance above the live coals...” Beverley went on to explain methods of baking bread in live coals and talked about the wide range of foods consumed, including peas, beans, sunflower seeds, corn and wild oats.


Historians estimate that almost 90 percent of women were basically illiterate in the early 1600s; the few that used cookbooks or written recipes relied on familiar English authors. In fact, the first cookbook published on this side of the Atlantic, in 1742, was a reprint of an English standard, The Compleat Housewife by Eliza Smith. In 1796 Amelia Simmons wrote American Cookery, but this book, and many others that followed it, consisted of common English recipes with only a few American adaptations included. Mary Randolph was the first American-born cookbook author and her book The Virginia Housewife or Methodical Cook is now recognized as being probably the first regional American cookbook. It dealt with Southern foods and styles of preparation, and included instructions for okra, fried chicken and catfish as well as the earliest recipes using tomatoes. Eliza Leslie published the first American baking book in 1828. Other notable authors of the time included Sarah Josepha Hale and Catharine Beecher, who both wrote of the benefits of healthy eating, exercise for women and education for women and all children.

Many 19th-century cookbooks contained information for all aspects of life; advice was given on everything from budgets, to health and childcare, home maintenance, table etiquette and even the best ways for people from various walks of life to become wealthy, in addition to food recipes. One of the most popular was published in Chicago in 1899 with the cumbersome title of Compendium of Cookery and Reliable Recipes, Two Complete Volumes in One Containing the Entire Compilation of Rules for Cooking and Confectionery, Together with the Book of Knowledge, or 1000 Ways of Getting Rich. The portion of the book titled “The Everyday Cook Book” includes recipes, solutions to housekeeping problems, daily home maintenance and health remedies including this gem:

“How to Restore from Stroke of Lightning: Shower with cold water for two hours; if the patient does not show signs of life, put salt in the water and continue to shower an hour longer.” Don’t try this one at home in the 21st-century, please!

Recipes for familiar foods came out of these compilations as well. Marion Harland published this recipe in Common Sense in the Household in 1871:

Pumpkin Pie (No.1)
1 quart stewed pumpkin, pressed through a sieve
9 eggs, whites and yolks beaten separately
2 quarts milk
1 tsp. mace
1 tsp. cinnamon and the same of nutmeg
1-1/2 cups white sugar or very light brown

Directions: Beat all well together and bake in crust without cover.

Presumably Mrs. Harland expected her readers to know how many pie shells were needed for this quantity of filling. I like a little more spice in my pumpkin pie, but that is probably a reflection of how we take spices for granted today rather than viewing them as costly luxuries from far-off lands.

Cooking schools made their appearance on the American food scene in the late nineteenth century. Fannie Farmer was a graduate, teacher and principal of the Boston Cooking School and her book Boston Cooking-School Cook Book, published in 1896, has been one of the best-selling cookbooks of all time, with revised editions still being sold.

Another type of cookbook that appeared around the time of the Civil War was the community, or charity cookbook format that is still popular today, containing recipe contributions from a variety of cooks within a group or community. These books were put together to raise funds for schools and hospitals and many other worthy causes. One of the most famous was The Settlement Cookbook, first published in 1901 to raise money for Settlement House in Milwaukee to use in its work assisting immigrants. This book is still a popular choice with many cooks; both newer and older revisions are fairly easy to find if you are looking for a “scratch” cookbook with a “meat and potatoes” leaning. This one will take you from breakfast through dinner and has recipes ranging from the very simple to fairly sophisticated.

Healthy, nutrition-based cooking was popularized during the late 1800s by many cookbook authors. Science was presenting many new discoveries that had ties to the family kitchen and cooking styles began to reflect this new idealism. Many authors advocated diets featuring reduced quantities of butter, lard, salt, and meat. Plain cooking was recommended and whole grains and vegetables were given pride of place. This school of thought was not unusual through the first half of the twentieth century. Adele Davis published the health food book, Let’s Cook It Right in 1947. This book and her other works are often considered the foundation of the “modern” whole foods movement of the 1960’s and beyond.

Regional and ethnic cookbooks also came on the scene in the nineteenth century. As pioneers moved west they found newtypes of game and wild plants to add to their diets and created recipes and cookbooks that were useful in their newly adopted regions. Missing the foods from home, immigrants wanted to recreate the memories they had left behind and in the process invented the genre of the ethnic cookbook. Both types of cookbooks often included historical and anecdotal tidbits that still provide interesting glimpses of times past. It may be this type of cookbook, more than any other that produced the recipes and meals many of us would now categorize as a legacy or heirloom.

The early cookbooks would challenge many cooks today. The ingredient measurements often appear in different terms than we are used to; measures such as teacupful, handful, gill and dram were common and recipes would sometimes just tell the cook to use a “goodly measure” or “a knob of butter or fat, half the size of a hen’s egg”. Cooking times were very vague—”until done” being the most common—and cooking temperatures mostly nonexistent. Some recipes would specify a “very hot” fire or “coals raked to the front of the hearth” in contrast to our ability to push a button and almost instantly change the temperature of our “cooking fires.”

It’s a small world

The world is a much smaller place today than it must have seemed to a pioneer, thanks to easier travel, the internet, television and the wide diversity of restaurants and ethnic foods in stores. Cookbooks on the shelves of libraries and bookstores reflect that diversity and many of us enjoy using them to broaden our culinary landscape, but some days the comfort foods of our youth just can’t be beat. And, then there are the food memories that aren’t so pleasant...

Co-op staffers tend to be people who appreciate good food; most of us cook from scratch regularly and lots of us grow at least some of the ingredients we use; many of us have deep family connections to food. This winter holiday season is filled with gatherings of families and friends and food—what better time to dip into the staff memory bank?


Lynn Olson, Cooperative Services Manager, thinks of her grandma when the scent of roasting meat wafts from our Kitchen. Lynn remembers marathon lefse-making sessions where each family member had a particular part to play, suited to his or her age and skills. She says, “I remember vividly the massive production my parents and godparents went through yearly to make a huge stash of our holiday supply of lefse. Someone would always be the ball runner, someone else was the roller (I was really good at it) and one person was generally working the griddle (which I recently inherited) based on their prowess with the lefse stick.” Check the recipe page for the Olson family’s lefse recipe.


Kerrie Lentz has fond food memories of her grandmother too. “Whenever I smell toast, and eat it too,” she says, “I think about my grandmother who loved to eat it anytime of day. Usually rye or pumpernickel with butter and black raspberry jam or cheese spread with the jam on top of that. Toast remains my comfort food. She also made a mean leg of lamb with mint jelly and lumpy mashed potatoes on the side.”


Marcus Dushak at the Production Kitchen, reminded us all of mom’s “goulash”—many of us grew up eating slightly different versions of this classic mix of ground beef, macaroni, onions, tomatoes and kidney beans, sometimes with corn or peas added for good measure. More than one of us hopes to never eat goulash again!

Cream of...

Many staff members grew up in the 1960s and 1970s and for lots of us that meant mom’s cooking incorporated some of the new convenience foods that were becoming popular. Condensed “Cream of...” soups were routinely used as an easy sauce for casseroles; frozen potatoes showed up in all shorts of guises.

Tater Tot Casserole

Evan Coleman grew up with tatertot casserole, a Midwestern classic that combined creamy condensed soup and frozen potatoes. His mom’s casserole was so good that he makes a vegan version now.


Other staff members remember soupy combinations too. Chris Hoffman’s family favorite was something they named “Slop:” “Cream of mushroom soup, a can of mushrooms, ground beef (which we also replaced with TVP and sometimes crumbled tofu), onions, black pepper, mixed together with instant mashed potatoes—liquidy, yet sculptable at the same time. It was always a happy day when there was no time to cook.”

Fish and Southern-style cooking

Prepared Foods Manager Dan Moore remembers fishing with his grandfather and then enjoying eating the fish, beer-battered and fried. Dan’s father liked to experiment with Southern-style cooking, leaving Dan with a love of hominy, grits and cheese, and deep-fried pickles, as well as a distinct aversion to okra.


Josh Perkins, Offsite Kitchen Manager, had a fishy childhood too. He said, “When I was a kid, fish was cheap. We ate a lot of flounder dredged in cornmeal and pan-fried, which was a nice hybrid of local availability (Boston) and my mom’s cooking roots (Southern Illinois). I also learned alifelong love of fried chicken and biscuits from her.”


Liam Donohue recently—and “ecstatically”—inherited his family’s 1960s fondue pot. He remembers fondue being served for really special occasions.


Erin Todd said she grew up eating home-cooked food most of the time. The regular meal formula was meat, potatoes and a vegetable; when Friday rolled around, “whatever was left over was thrown in a skillet, cooked up and served with massive amounts of ketchup. My dad called it gruel. (I think it might be German...)”

Swedish treats

Family Christmas traditions are still kept alive by Liz Wermcrantz’s relatives. She says, “Every Christmas we have Swedish potato sausage that two of my male relatives make by using an old-school sausage maker. It used to be a bonding ritual between my grandpa and one of his sons-in-law, but it’s been passed down and now involves cousins and uncles, etc. We have Swedish meatballs at Christmas. It’s my Auntie Carolyn’s recipe (passed down to her from earlier generations) and she makes a couple hundred of them every Christmas!”

Boiled eggs and milk-toast

Ariel Timon of our Human Resources staff has this comforting memory to share: “Whenever I was sick, growing up, my mom would make me ‘boiled eggs and milk-toast,” which her grandma made for her: make some toast, butter it if you like. In a saucepan, bring some milk to a slow boil. Add salt and pepper to taste, and crack in an egg or two. Mix with a fork so the egg breaks up, and turn heat down or off when the egg looks cooked. Break the toast up into bits; put the toast in a bowl and pour the egg-milk over the toast. Serve with a spoon, on the couch with a blanket.”

Co-op family favorites

Food memories really are powerful and will play a big part in many of the Thanksgiving gatherings that are coming up. Check out the Recipe pages of this issue of The Reader to test some of these Co-op family favorites yourself-and send us your family heirloom recipes too. We would love to share them with other Co-op owners and continue your food legacy.