Tuesday, 18 January 2022

Life Recipes - by Lu Hersey

 My 94 year old father had a nasty fall this week and needed some TLC to get over it, so I've been spending time at his house in Plymouth.

While here, helping him get about and cleaning up the place, I found two old hand written recipe books, one kept by my grandmother, and one by my mother, both complete with yellowing pages and splots of cake mix (hopefully cake and not kidneys or liver) throughout. And I thought about how much of these women's lives went into all that cooking, and how the books are almost like memoirs in recipe form.

To anyone else, they are simply recipe books. But they brought back so many memories of family history, and with such intensity, I was moved to tears. 

Who'd have thought my mother's endless recipes for Christmas cake could ever make me cry? If you didn't know her, you'd wonder why she had half a dozen recipes for the same thing. For me, it was my entire childhood in annual Christmas cake disasters, as my mother battled with different ovens in different places. We never stayed in one place for long as my father was in the navy, so she constantly had to adjust recipes to the laws of temperamental ovens - and never once succeeded. Every Christmas she'd be filled with the same boundless optimism that maybe this year the cake wouldn't sink in the middle, and every year, over changing recipes and changing ovens, it did. 

She died well over thirty years ago now, but I can still visualise her in the kitchen, filling the sunken middles of Christmas cakes with marzipan to make them flat, and covering them in royal icing that set so hard it could break your teeth. I hated those cakes, but looking at the recipes now, I can only wish she was still around to bake another.

So many of the recipes reflect her social life, scribbled on scraps of paper, some written at dinner parties, some sent in letters by friends. All of them dishes she had once enjoyed. A recipe for Swedish apple cake from the time my father was working in Sweden - the only cake I ever remember her managing to make successfully. A recipe for some Spanish dish, which she obviously wrote down as the cafe owner dictated it to her - how could I have forgotten that she spoke fluent Spanish, so she didn't need to translate?

My grandmother's recipe book, so old it's held together with yellowing sellotape, brought back different memories, from when she came to live with us when I was about eight. The parkin she made in quantities so vast it fed the family, me and my friends at teatime up until she cooked the next batch a fortnight later. I loved her parkin. Even my father, who disliked his mother-in-law intensely, loved her parkin. She'd written the same recipe out three times in different quantities, because coming from a family of 14 children, she'd had to adjust it down by half, then half again.

I noticed on the inside cover that she'd started her recipe book in 1929 - by which time she was already well over 40. I only wish she'd kept one from earlier in her life too - but as she left school aged 12 to work in the woollen mill, she was probably too busy to write recipes down before then. 

As it is, her book gives a fascinating insight into what she and her family were eating in the first half of the 20th century. There are several wartime recipes, along with a record of the vegetables my grandfather grew in his allotment. I remember seeing his Digging for Victory certificate from WW2, but my grandmother's careful record of the annual allotment produce, written with such pride in her recipe book, is something else. 

I notice her careful copperplate writing becomes looser, more wobbly towards the end of her book as she grows old. And my mother's writing, never neat, becomes almost illegible after she became ill. But she never gave up wanting to record a good recipe. Never accepted that she might not live long enough to make that lemon syllabub again. 

These books may be painful for me to read, but I've brought them back home with me. Somewhere at the back of my mind I have this idea to make them into new books, combined with photographs, and perhaps my own memories of both women - making a more complete family record to pass on to the next generation. Though whether they'd find it interesting or not is another matter entirely...

Lu Hersey


Mystica said...

I have some of my grandmother's recipes. They were wonderful. It somehow doesnt get replicated very well!

Steve Gladwin said...

That's such a lovely idea, Lu - preserving the best of the old and precious memories for the future. Have you ever seen the Hairy Bikers series 'Mum's Know Best'. The many women from many backgrounds in that really capture the best of that - and you get to see, if not taste - some of the recipes.

LuWrites said...

No I haven't, Steve! Must look it up! Maybe we should form a collection of people's hand written favourite old family recipes and see if we can crowdfund publishing them with Unbound!

Ms. Yingling said...

How fascinating! Our grandmothers were roughly the same age. I have a copy book from her two year teacher training course in 1912, but with 38 cousins, I don't have any of her other recipes. By the time I knew her, she wasn't cooking at all, just being brought food from all of the family. Your poor mother and the cakes. I can feel her pain. I'm glad you have some good memories.

Penny Dolan said...

Lovely post. Lu, and such strongly "storytelling" photographs. Retelling your family history through recipes is an attractive project.

Wonder if the recipe collection started at that time because that was when she took over the cooking from someone else? Or no longer had a daily help or similar?

I have a couple of my Nan's Economical Cookery books (in title and sturdy un-illustrated production values) that I have hardly ever used and yet find hard to throw away.

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Anne Booth said...

That's lovely.

LuWrites said...

Thanks Penny and Anne! x