Yesterday, once again I found myself in the kitchen exclaiming – Mom, what did you MEAN by a “handful”? What’s a “slow” oven?  Were you cooking with wood?

There have been so many times I was half-way through an old family recipe and found myself stumped by the vagaries of it all. THEY knew what they meant. They could do it in their sleep, those Nelson girls and all. They were old country cooks and good at it. They could win a Quick Fire in nothing flat. But sometimes I struggle to interpret their handwritten notes.

And sometimes I really have to laugh at their personal inditements and guidelines.  Take Aunt Verna’s FRUIT SALAD. Along with the cherries and oranges and pineapples and yes, marshmallows, she calls for “pecans-25 cents worth”.  Can you imagine the pittance of pecans you would get today for 25 cents!

And then there’s Mom’s notation for MAYME’S PIE, which she has copied maybe 8 times on various scraps of paper, so you know that it was definitely one of Harriet’s favorites and I can vouch for that, having grown up with her telling me repeatedly how good it was.  And it was. But what I find interesting is the insertion after “10 soda crackers” that says “14 OUR size”  WHAT!!!

And actually you might like to try her cousin Mayme’s Pie, that is if you can work  out the cracker issue:

3 egg whites, beaten stiff; 1 Cup of sugar with ½ teasp baking powder; ½ cup nuts (I’m assuming chopped) and the, oh I don’t know, 10 to 14 soda crackers. Put in a greased pan and bake for 30 minutes in a 300 degree oven.

And of course, serve with Whipped Cream!

I went to the Comstock ALC (American Lutheran Church) Women’s Cookbook for 1990, where every name seems to be a family friend or relative, to see how those great cooks stand up in print. The first entry I turned to began –  “take a big gob of Crisco on your fingertips and mix into flour”.  A “handful”, a “pinch” and now a “gob”.  I don’t know.

Another entry marked “Frozen Mystery” began with the first ingredient being “1 gallon of inexpensive vanilla ice cream”.  Now I have eaten at this person’s house and she is a distant relative and I could swear I was served only the finest ingredients at her house. But I see her point. The best cooks,  and this person deserves the title, are often thrifty cooks especially the country cooks from our heritage, and really there is no real reason to splurge on Ben and Jerrys if you are going to simply “mush it all together with the other ingredients.” There is perhaps a good reason why she ends the recipe with the comment – “Guest will say, What is this?” Her daughter’s recipe for Strawberry Pie calls for a crust of only Hydrox cookie crumbs.  I don’t think they are still on the market, but I’m wondering what we can substitute.  I’m not sure, but I’m thinking they must be Oreos? (Which are just like Jo-Jo’s from Trader Joe’s which Robert likes to keep and eat right out of the freezer.)   And finally, this favorite old food-spattered cookbook has an amazing entry for Fudge whose first ingredient is – 1 lb. Velveeta Cheese.

I’m not kidding.

Yet I’ve saved the best for last. This discovery came about just yesterday while on the phone with my cousin Maryanne as we were trying to determine which recipe of Aunt Verna’s (Maryanne’s mother) – whether the Brown Oatmeal Bread or the Whole Wheat Molasses – was the one we remembered as the very best.  I happened to turn the little scrap of paper over and found notations for WINE from Mildred, Verna’s sister. And I seemed to remember being at her house in Fargo in the early 70’s when these two fabulous cooks scribbled their specialties down for me.  I think I remember liking the wine, but in those days wine was something reserved for communion.  I don’t know if I would like this version today but it is definitely too dear not to pass on. And I give it to you as written.


Two 49 or 54 cent bottles Welch’s grape juice

One large can frozen Welch’s grape juice

Four ½ cups of sugar

½ teaspoon yeast

Water to fill gallon jar. Dissolve sugar first in warm water in gallon jar.      Add juice and yeast and water to neck of bottle.

Cover with a ten cent balloon.

Takes at least 4 weeks.


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  1. maryanne says:

    I loved this post as it brought back some fond memories. My Aunt Mimi as we called her, was really a character and so much fun, but such a good cook, like the rest of my relatives, they could make a wonderful meal out of not much of any thing, no fast or prepared foods in my family! Things have really changed, huh? Keep on keeping!

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