When Cookbooks Can Talk: Three Generations of Women and Their Recipes

This post is part of the #Purge365 series about a midlife journey through a year of purging a house – and a life – of unnecessary things. Click here to see all previous posts.

Today I want to talk about cooking. Or cookbooks, rather.

At first glance, tackling my two shelves of cookbooks seems like an easy job. Seeing as I use exactly none of them for cooking these days. I have long moved from cookbooks to keeping my recipes online on a Dropbox account. It works great. I can access my recipes from anywhere, meaning I can make my German-Singaporean-Filipino Apple cake from wherever on Earth I am vacationing at the time (not that I’ve actually vacationed anywhere lately).

This is wonderfully convenient and practical. Purging the remaining cookbooks should be an easy affair. But instead, I soon find myself on a journey into the past.

I first open my own hand-written cookbook which I started as a girl. It’s a cheap little notebook with an alphabetized index. In it, you can witness the evolution of my cooking hand in hand with the evolution of my handwriting. (I’m glad to report that my cooking has taken a better turn than my handwriting.) Among many clippings from ancient magazines I come across a page covered in brown splotches – bits of chocolate propelled there by an inexpertly held hand-mixer. I know this all these years later because my then boyfriend, now husband, documented his transgression by circling those splotches and labeling them “chocolate mousse” and “Noisette: The Anti-Cook.” While I can’t remember which kitchen we were using at the time, or when exactly it happened, I can viscerally recall how I felt that day – the banter, the young love, the expansiveness of a heart unburdened by the responsibilities of rearing children .

The next cookbook, also hand-written, couldn’t be any different from my messy affair. Its cover bears a cross-stitched image of a teakettle, and the first few pages are covered in neat rows of cursive ink. My mother-in-law gave it to me either as a wedding present or shortly thereafter. I can’t remember if I asked her for my new husband’s favorite recipes, eager to please, or if perhaps he, unbeknownst to me, begged his mother to teach me how to make his favorite meals. Maybe it was her own idea. In any case, I treasure this cookbook not because I have ever used it, but because it reflects so much of her personality. Everything in its place, just so, neat and tidy, a well-planned and ordered life. She has been dead almost five years now, and leafing through this cookbook almost instantly conjures the most vivid memories of her. I can see her wrinkly smile, feel her kindness, hear her soothing voice. Calmness and harmony emanated from her, order and structure, love and loyalty.

This is where we get to my own mother. To describe her, you might use the exact opposite of any of those words. She was neither calm nor orderly, and she was more of a fearsome presence than a kind or loving one. My mother did not go through the trouble of writing down her favorite recipes for me. She did, however, give me a handwritten cookbook as well. She gave me my grandmother’s cookbook. 

3 cookbooks 3 generations of women
3 cookbooks, 3 generations. My grandmother’s (taken over by my mother) on the left, my own in the middle, and my mother-in-law’s neat one on the right. These cookbooks CAN talk. Keep reading to find out what they say.

My grandmother – Omi to me – also covered her book in neat rows of cursive ink. Except it’s near illegible. She was a doctor, you see, just like my mother, which doomed her penmanship. I might write more about this grandmother of mine someday, because she was quite remarkable – a female doctor when there were few, a cook like no other, and a single mother to boot. But today it’s just about her cookbook and her cooking.

It should be said here that my mother did not see eye to eye with her mother-in-law when it came to food. Apparently my mother had the audacity to say, to my grandmother who loved to cook above all else, that she, my mother, had no patience for wasting all that time just to feed her family. That if a simple pill were invented to take the place of food, she’d be the first one to sign up. This did NOT go over well with Omi, who I imagine would have sniffed haughtily, mumbled something about ungrateful young women who didn’t know what they were talking about, and shuffled off back into the kitchen, never quite forgiving my mother for committing the sacrilege of speaking such words out loud.

But regardless of any bad blood, it’s very typical for my mother to have prized that old cookbook and wanting to pass it on to me. She recognized the value of traditions, and of homemade cooking. And she recognized that my grandmother was the superior cook between them, an excellent chef who loved food with all her heart.

As children, we recognized this too. I remember how my brother and I were shipped off to Omi’s house every year – he, being older, always scored Christmas break, while I had to make do with the lesser, in my mind at least, Easter vacation. Going to our Omi’s house was a wonderful treat for three reasons:

One, she would take us to Breuningerland in Stuttgart, which at the time was the most modern shopping mall in all of Germany, when shopping malls barely existed. It was the first of its kind, you could go from store to store under one roof, you could actually get new shoes and a pair of coveted jeans, and then Omi would splurge for a hot chocolate and Kuchen at a café. I’m sure my mother must have bought new clothing for me on some occasions in my life, but in my memory she never did. In my memory I was dressed in rags and hand-me-down pants with leather patches on their knees, and so I lived for those annual pilgrimages with Omi to score the latest pair of blue suede leather boots.

Two, she would make it her mission to fatten us up. It can’t be decribed otherwise. She would spoil us from dawn to dusk with Schnitzel sautéed in a sea of butter, fresh French bread with thick layers of butter AND Nutella, Granini juices – the kind so thick and sugary they were more akin to syrup – a wide range of home-baked cakes, tarts, galettes, macaroons, and other delicacies, and on top of it all the ultimate prize, bottles upon bottles of genuine Coca-Cola.

And three, she owned an actual television set, which we did not, and didn’t have any qualms about letting us sit in front of it all day, a plate of Nutella toast on our laps, and watch to our heart’s content while she rummaged in the kitchen to cook even more food.

Upon my grandmother’s death, my mother took ownership of her cookbook. She prized family history and did the best thing she could think of: she brought it straight into our own kitchen and put it to use. I can see her right in front of my eyes, squinting at a page, my brothers and I expectantly waiting at a little table where she had lined up cookie cutters and rolling pins. These were some of the most joyous days of my childhood, crazy days leading up to Christmas when our household sprung into frenzied production of gingerbread people, hazelnut macaroons, and a triple-layered raspberry thumbprint-like cookie by the wonderful name of “Spitzbuben” –  German for scoundrel, rascal, or perhaps scallywag.

This is the same cookbook I am now holding in my hand. It bears my grandmother’s scrawled script, rendered often illegible by the ravages of time and a rather large spill of some kind, by the looks of it. Over the years, my mother liberally added her own annotations to my grandmother’s instructions. And in it she collected whatever loosely fell into the “cooking” category. If you open a random page you are likely to find the instructions for a Rowenta kitchen scale from 1978, a distant niece’s wedding invitation with half of a recipe scribbled across, and a yellowed newspaper clipping with a sourdough recipe. One recipe is scribbled on the back of medical prescription pad. Another is a faxed pizza recipe from the local prison doctor. Gingerbread cookie instructions are squeezed onto a tiny post-it note. And one recipe is penned on the back of my undergraduate software development syllabus from 1988.

my grandmothers cookbook
A spill of major proportions has rendered large parts of my grandmother’s cookbook illegible – if it ever was legible to anyone before it
contents of my grandmothers cookbook
My mother’s additions: A recipe on a credit card application, and another one on the back of a wedding announcement
my grandmothers cookbook
More recipes added by my mother over the years

As you can see, the whole thing is unbelievably messy.

As was my mother. Where my mother-in-law (she of the cross-stitched cover) was calm and collected, my mother was a tornado, a force of will, outspoken, brash, argumentative, often loud. “A head with edges”, they said of her in a eulogy at City Hall. My grandmother was different yet again, somewhere in between on the messiness spectrum. Somewhere close to where I’d put myself. 

To think that I could summon all these thoughts about the three most important women in my life without much effort, all by leafing through their cookbooks for a few minutes. That, my friends, is why I cannot part with these otherwise rather useless objects. Marie Kondo says to thank the items you decide to part with before you let go of them. I do like the idea of that ritual.

But in this case, I thank my three cookbooks, loose leafs and all, and then I keep them anyway. 

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