Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Evolution of Family Recipes – Have they really changed?

While I was in Boston in August, I found an awesome cookbook: <i>Our Founding Foods</i> by Jane Tennant with  S.G.B Tennant, Jr. I was super excited about finding this book so that as I write about the American Revolution I can include some foody aspects based on the recipes from Martha Washington and other famous first ladies.
This wonderful book prompted me to write about how recipes (aka receipts) have changed over the decades since the beginnings of the United States. As a result of that blog post (which you can read on my website: several of my nieces requested copies of family recipes that I have, and for some of my own.
Typing up the recipes for casseroles and cookies handed down from my mother, grandmother, and several aunts was easy. But they also want my recipes. Hmmm. Recipe?

I cook by adding a bit of this and a dash of that to the meats and vegies. How do I relay the quantities of seasoning when I “eyeball” the amount of each ingredient as I add it? In fact, the seasonings vary each time I make my smothered chicken or pork chops. Meatloaf has a few standard ingredients, but then there are whims involved as well.
I’ve had to tell my lovely nieces that those “recipes” will take longer to pull together than the ones handed down to me. Which illustrates why so many family recipes are lost unless someone takes the time to quantify the ingredients.
For example, my smothered chicken. I start with frozen chicken breasts (for simplicity when I was working full time and had no time to defrost them) in a covered baking dish. Then I decide between a can of no-salt added diced tomatoes, a can of cream of mushroom/chicken/celery (pick one) soup, or both. Then I add grated parmesan cheese and seasonings – garlic, pepper, herbs. Like I said, the seasonings change with my whim and the time of year. Stir that together and pour over the chicken. Bake at 400 degrees Fahrenheit for about an hour, or until done. Obviously, if you’re using thawed chicken the baking time will be reduced.
My daughter has her own variations to that recipe, sometimes including sliced black olives or nuts. That’s the cool thing about the recipe, though, it’s variability. But it’s also why it’s hard to capture it on paper with any amount of precision.
But do we need precision when it comes to recipes? Some people do, some people don’t. I think it depends on how comfortable you are in the kitchen.

Which brings me back to my title question: have family recipes changed as much as those in cookbooks? We still have unwritten recipes that we share with each other that have never been anchored on a page. Indeed, they are only written in my head.
Like my characters, the meals I make each day are ingrained in my mind but do not appear in any cookbook. That’s not to say I don’t use recipes – I do! For baking cookies and cakes and brownies; I can never remember the amounts of flour, baking soda, etc., and do not want to court disaster. But fixing dinner or breakfast or lunch is a much different enterprise.
What family recipes do you have that only exist in your head? Tell me in the comments and you’ll be entered in a drawing to win a $20 gift card to Babies-R-Us/Toys-R-Us! You’ll also be entered to win the Kindle Fire at the end of the month.(Note that only U.S. residents are eligible to win the Kindle Fire.)
The RWA Southern Magic chapter in Birmingham, Alabama, is hosting their annual Romance Readers Luncheon on November 3, 2012. This event is a celebration of people who read romances and everyone is invited. I’ll be there, along with many other writers, so I hope you’ll try to join in the fun! For more info and to register to attend, please visit


Lisa J said...

My Mom's potato soup, macaroni and tomatoes, sloppy joes, and potato salad. My mom tried to give my sister-in-law the potato soup recipe and forgot half the ingredients. We still tease Mom about not getting recipes from her.

I love cookbooks and have a bad habit of making my own modifications to them as I make them

Betty Bolte said...

Too funny, Lisa! I can see how she'd forget some ingredients if she plays with the recipe. I don't think modifying a recipe is a bad habit; it shows your cooking creativity shining through!

Ingrid Seymour said...

Sadly, I have none :( My grandma was a great cook, but my mom never learned how to make any of those wonderful dishes. And Granny passed away before I was old enough to be interested in cooking.

But I'm building my own collection of wonderful recipes now. And I'm already passing them down to my daughter. Ask my six year old ;)

It was great meeting you at the conference. Great post.

Betty Bolte said...

Ingrid, I'm glad you're starting the family tradition now. Way to go! It was wonderful meeting you last weekend, as well!

RedPeril said...

My mother was never really taught to cook by my grandmother. As a result, she developed more of an improvisational style to cooking that I've probably amplified to some sort of semi-homemade extreme. >.> She could do just about anything with a crock pot, some kind of meat (squirrel periodically included), and any kind of sauce. Cream-of-something soup bases mixed with powdered onion soup mix were her specialty. But BBQ sauce and salad dressings were fair game. If she didn't have one preferred ingredient, she'd just substitute out with something vaguely close. Sure, it tended to change the flavor from one meal to the next...but sometimes that led to a pleasant discovery. :)

That kind of flexibility has been a handy mindset to have. My husband and I started out so poor, I had to improvise on a LOT of meals just because we couldn't afford either the ingredient, or the gas money to go get the ingredient. Half of the time, a recipe was based on whatever leftover thing I needed to use up so it wouldn't go bad. (Spaghetti sauce for instance is a great base for chili, tomato basil soup, gumbo, chicken parmesan, etc.) I still wing it a lot now, just because I can't stand wasted food. >.<

One of my favorite use-it-up recipes involves taking 1-2#s of literally any chopped fruit you need to use up, mixing with a little vanilla and a tablespoon of flour, topping with sugar cookie dough, and baking for an hour at 350 degrees.

JoAnn said...

I make my mom's vegetable soup the same way. My s-i-l wanted the recipe, so I made it once measuring everything. Didn't taste the same!

Betty Bolte said...

RedPeril, sounds like you have quite a flair for being creative on a shoestring! You reminded me of a lady I met in England who mixed powdered onion soup mix with apricot preserves and poured that over chicken breasts and baked. That was yummy, too. I think she may be the inspiration for all of my smothered meat recipes, actually. Thanks for sharing! It was good seeing you at M&M last weekend, too!

Betty Bolte said...

JoAnn, do you think measuring takes the magic out of cooking? Hmm. I wonder. Thanks for stopping by!

Ingeborg said...

My mother didn't use recipes so I learned to cook and bake like her. Little bit of this and little bit of that. It always tastes good though. When someone asks me for a recipe I have to try to figure out the

Meda White said...

Your post took me back in time.

When I first married and moved away from home, I'd call my Grandmother to ask her how to cook certain things.

She'd say, "Add flour 'til it looks right."

"Huh? What does right look like?"

We'd laugh together and eventually, I'd get it made.

Our family makes a dish we call "milk toast". In military circles, it's known as SOS.

Melt a few tablespoons of butter and add chipped beef or pressed turkey (cut up small). Add flour 'til it looks right. Add milk, salt, and pepper. Stir constantly until thick like gravy. Serve over toast. Enjoy!

Betty Bolte said...

Ingeborg, using your judgement tends to make one a better cook, don't you think? Thanks for sharing!

Betty Bolte said...

Meda, I've had SOS many times in my life! My dad used to really enjoy it, actually. Thanks for sharing that memory!

CrystalGB said...

My mom's banana pudding, stuffing for Thanksgiving, chili, vegetable soup, chicken n' dumplings. I cook like you do. :)

Betty Bolte said...

Thanks Crystal. Now you've made me hungry for banana pudding!

Tereasa said...

I love trying new recipes. With one hubby and three sons at home, they are my taste testers. We've thrown away whole pans of food because it was awful, but we've come across many wonderful recipes as well. I keep a collection in a binder that one day I'll copy for each of my boys.

Betty Bolte said...

Tereasa, that's a great idea to make copies and hand them off to your sons. It will be interesting to see if they make the meals/etc. themselves or have their wives do so. Thanks!

Jane said...

I'm not a cook, but my dad is and his specialty is beef fried noodles. I'm sure he has a few recipes in his head.

Betty Bolte said...

Jane, my dad was the family cook during the week, but my mom fixed the meals on the weekends and special occasions. Gotta love a man who can cook. Thanks for sharing!

Twimom227 said...

I am not a great cook, and I have no family recipes in my head! But when I read a good one I write it down or print it out. I've made my own cookbook of "favorites."

bn100 said...

No family recipes in my head.


Betty Bolte said...

Thanks to all of you for sharing your cooking tips and memories with me.

The winner of the $20 gift card is Meda White. Meda please email me at and include your mailing address. I'll send out the gift card as soon as I hear from you. (You have 24 hours to respond, or I'll have to draw another name.) Congratulations!

Shadow said...

I have a few family recipes. My grandma is a cook (and her food is awesome) between her and my mom, i can cook some good dishes! :D

Betty Bolte said...

I'm sorry to say that Meda didn't contact me. So the new winner is JoAnn! Please send me an email at betty @bettybolte (dot) com and include your mailing address. I'll send the gift card ASAP. Thanks for commenting and congratulations!

Tina B said...

We don't really have any recipes that get handed down, so if I want to make something like my mom, I call her and ask her how to make it. I have several in my head, like breaded chicken or chili, but like you, every time the spices change some. (or at least the amounts alter)
Thanks for sharing. :)
That recipe sounds yummy.