I was reading an article yesterday about the “dirty little secret” that a lot of family recipes we think are ancient in fact originated from labels printed on food products in the 1950s. I wasn’t aware it was a secret.
The gist of most of the reader-provided stories on the subject was: Grandchild loves recipe and begs grandmother for details as the latter is on her deathbed. “Oh, child, it was just printed on a box of Borax!” Cue laughter.
I spent some time with my grandmother in the kitchen and have done a great deal of cooking since she passed. I’ve seen the recipes she saved, and while there are a lot of handwritten recipes that could legitimately have been passed down through generations, there are also a lot she clipped from a newspaper or magazine.
My grandmother was an adult with children during the ’50s and entertained guests pretty frequently. Certainly it was “frequently” by my standard. She was a wonderful cook, and though I don’t remember her following recipes for anything she cooked, I wouldn’t be all that surprised if she’d pulled one or two out for a dessert.
Most of what she cooked was food she’d grown up eating, and a good bit of it was from their garden. You don’t need a recipe for green beans with bacon if it’s something you’ve seen your mother or grandmother do your whole life.
But even a legitimate “family recipe” doesn’t guarantee a successful end result. When I was in college in Memphis, I always stopped on the way up and back in Amite to see my grandparents. One afternoon as I was rifling through their freezer after lunch I found a frozen bag of some indeterminate meat-looking things. I asked my grandmother what it was, and after thinking for a bit, she said it must be the doves someone had given my grandfather recently.
She said they weren’t likely to eat it, and so gave it to me. I asked her how she’d cook it, and she wrote down a recipe on a little card. I am not going to transcribe it verbatim, but I love that she gave no measurements for salt, pepper, or flour nor a time for how long it should take to “brown [the doves] in butter in Dutch oven.”
She just assumed I’d at least know how to season and when something was brown. I am gratified by her confidence in me, but it was premature. The “doves” were not doves but chicken livers. At first I thought perhaps my grandmother had given me dove breasts because that’s where all the meat is on a dove, really.
Today I could distinguish between frozen chicken livers and frozen dove breasts, but back then I could not and thus followed the recipe my grandmother had given me for doves.
Browning and then braising chicken livers for an hour is not a very good way to cook them, as it happens. My rote adherence to the recipe gave the livers the texture of a chalkboard eraser. The sauce was good, but it wasn’t going to carry the day. To be clear: The problem was not the recipe; I’ve made it since, and it’s much better with doves on the bone.
No, it turns out that it’s generally not the recipe that makes good food but the cook.
If you are among the many folks who’ve discovered a recipe you thought was a family original was nothing of the sort, please share with me. I am particularly interested in stories about aged relatives who hid the origin of their “famous” recipe but were discovered in time to face the music. Coincidentally I am pitching a show called “The Deceitful Elderly” with that premise.