Cooking With My Great-Grandmother | Arts & Culture | Smithsonian

Cooking With My Great-Grandmother

I never knew my maternal great-grandmother, Grace. She lived in Wichita, Kansas, and died long before I was born. But I was recently given the opportunity to cook with her, in a way.Earlier this year, one of my mother's wedding presents to me was a small, age-mottled hardcover book called "A Little...

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I never knew my maternal great-grandmother, Grace. She lived in Wichita, Kansas, and died long before I was born. But I was recently given the opportunity to cook with her, in a way.

Book cover

Earlier this year, one of my mother's wedding presents to me was a small, age-mottled hardcover book called "A Little Cookbook for a Little Girl." It was published in 1905, and given to my great-grandmother in 1913, according to the inscription. Grace was married and in her early 20s by then, but her son (my grandfather) was just a toddler. So I'm guessing he's behind the scribbles on the cookbook's cover, and the painstakingly penciled-in page numbers that don't quite match reality (8, 9, 10, 21, 31, 41, 61...).

The gift inscription is from an elderly Wichita woman named Mrs. L.S. Carter, who wrote a few of the opening pages, including the perhaps unintentionally funny "Suggestions to Brides" and "How Wife Can Help Husband."

There are some maddeningly sexist ones, such as: "Greet him at night with a cheerful face, not one all snarled up by discontent and the effort to find another mission in life than that of being a good wife." (Or on the flip side: "Your husband will be what you make him." Whoa!)

But there are also some evergreen bits of wisdom: "Eat to live—do not live to eat," or "Have a complete understanding concerning income, and live within it," for example.

My favorite suggestion, just for sheer ridiculousness: "Do not spend more than six afternoons in the week playing bridge, whist where you form a gambling habit."

I'll get right on that.

Anyway, back to cooking with great-grandma. The book's charming introduction sets it up as a story about a little girl named Margaret:
"She wanted to cook, so she went into the kitchen and tried and tried, but she could not understand the cook-books, and she made dreadful messes, and spoiled her frocks and burned her fingers till she just had to cry."
Hey, that sounds familiar...Margaret and I might be related.

So, says the book, Margaret sought help from her grandmother and mother and "her Pretty Aunt and her Other Aunt" (ouch...poor Other Aunt). At first they told her she was too young to cook, but she just kept trying, and making more messes and spoiled frocks and tears. Finally, her elders relented and decided to write her a special cookbook.
"So she danced for joy, and put on a gingham apron and began to cook that very minute, and before another birthday she had cooked every single thing in the book."
I don't know if my great-grandma Grace responded to her present with quite as much fervor, but judging from the stains on several of the pages, she did use it. The recipes begin with breakfast foods, from cereal to "steak with bananas" (no thanks!). There's even a recipe for toast, which surprised me until I remembered that electric toasters didn't exist in 1905. Instead, the book advises little girls to use a "toasting fork" and "move the slices of bread back and forth across the coals." Wow. The things we take for granted these days, huh?

There's a little check mark by the recipe for popovers, which pleases me, since this has been my own breakfast obsession lately. I've been using Alton Brown's recipe, and a blender, but next time I'll try this old-fashioned way:
Put the muffin-tins or iron gem-pans in the oven top get very hot, while you mix these popovers.

2 eggs 2 cups of milk 2 cups of flour 1 small teaspoonful of salt

Beat the eggs very light without separating them. Pour the milk in and beat again. Sift the salt and flour together, pour over the eggs and milk into it, and beat quickly with a spoon till it is foamy. Strain through a wire sieve, and take the hot pans out of the oven and fill each one half-full; bake just 25 minutes.
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About Amanda Bensen

Amanda Bensen is a former assistant editor at Smithsonian and is now a senior editor at the Nature Conservancy.

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