Mother's Day is always tough for Laura Lee Dobbins, who lost her mother to lung cancer 12 years ago.
In the buttery-yellow kitchen of her Medford home, Dobbins, 46, pages through a fading manila folder filled with fragile bits and pieces. These are the recipes her mother relied on to make Sunday dinners stand out, and this is where Dobbins finds solace.
Mother and daughter cooked side by side for years, so Dobbins has her mother's culinary instincts as well as her recipes.
On Thanksgiving, she simply must make her mother's stuffing. The family would revolt if she didn't make Mom's sweet-and-sour mustard sauce to serve with the Easter ham. At Christmas, it's Jubilee Jumble cookies. And every July, Dobbins picks berries for her mother's Blueberry Lime Jam.
"My mom didn't have real cookbooks," Dobbins says. "She'd get recipes from the label on the back of a can, or through a giveaway cookbook provided by an appliance maker, or from a friend."
Hence the folder of clippings stained with flecks of batter.
"I have some of her recipes written on the backs of envelopes, and some on scraps of paper. I save them, no matter how yellowed they are."
Meals and the memories they stir are core ingredients of our life stories. And as surely as the recipe for your height, hair and eye color is in your genes to be passed on to your children and your children's children, so should the instructions for mom's meat loaf.
"We preserve people by making the dishes they taught us," says Shuna Fish Lydon, a Berkeley, Calif.-based chef, teacher and blogger.
That's why Dobbins hopes to compile her mother's and grandmother's specialties in a family cookbook one of these days.
"I really need to do that. It would be so cool."
The tools are available. In bookshops and online, Dobbins could find journals and cookbook layouts, with templates for recording recipes and options for fancy binders, adding family lore and photographs.
Great idea, but. . . .
The task is as much emotional as it is material, and all those stirred-up feelings can create roadblocks. Besides, not everybody has a mother's recipes.
Janet Theophano, a University of Pennsylvania folklorist and the author of Eat My Words: Reading Women's Lives Through the Cookbooks They Wrote (St. Martin's Press, 2002), says obstacles to re-creating your culinary legacy can and should be overcome.
"Cookbooks tell personal stories," says Theophano. "The food splattered on the pages is a record of family life."
Beyond ingredients and instructions, she says, "cookbooks reveal the details of women's lives, and the culture they helped shape.
"Making a personal cookbook is a lovely thing for women to do, whether they have sons or daughters."
For Theophano, the study of women's lives through their cookbooks filled a personal need. Her own mother, now 96, survived World War II by escaping to England, where she worked as a domestic and a cook. But none of her possessions survived, and Theophano has no daughter to bequeath them to anyway.
Still, she says, she gave her son her love of cooking and inspired him to become a chef (for a time, at least). And she finds solace in the teachings of our collective mothers.
"I have a whole collection of wooden spoons" found in antiques shops, Theophano says. "I know somebody used them and cherished them, and because of that they have so much more meaning for me than new ones.
"That's one of the ways I've tried to re-create a culinary history for myself."
Before the dawn of mass-market commercial cookbooks (Fannie Farmer's Boston Cooking-School Cook Book was first published in 1896), young women of marrying age created their own recipe collections in preparation for leaving home.
Many just listed the ingredients - without the instructions - because mom had already shown her daughter how. These women probably never imagined their little journals would one day be of so much interest.
But when Theophano found a small handwritten notebook in an antiques shop years ago, she viewed it as an artifact.
Here were pages to the past - slices of women's history that would never have appeared in conventional classroom textbooks.
"These are books about how to be a good wife and mother," Theophano says. "They show the social and cultural expectations and ideals of womanhood."
Women were not allowed to own property until the 1850s, Theophano says.
"So the only things they could pass on legally were their household goods. And I believe a woman's cookbook was one of these treasures."
Another obstacle to preserving the family food history: Some women refuse to part with their special recipes.
Janet Connell of Abington Township kept a lid on the recipe for her Christmas oyster pie - until today. (See accompanying recipe, which she agreed to share for this story.)
"If I give them the recipe, they'll start making it and then it won't be special anymore," Connell says. "And it's a nice feeling to hear people say, 'Will you make it?' "
This kind of thinking confounds her daughter, Janine, who has been asking for the oyster pie instructions for years.
But Janet Connell insists her fear is well-founded.
"A few years ago I gave my recipe to my brother for cheesecake and he started making it all the time and then mine wasn't significant anymore."
Besides, Janet Connell says, "It's not fully my recipe. I found it, I think in a magazine. Oh God, I think it must be 25 or better years ago."
She long ago lost the scrap of paper from the magazine and has been improvising ever since.
Like many women, Connell did not learn to cook at her mother's kitchen counter.
Connell's Italian grandmother kept the family in homemade ravioli and juicy meatballs - without ever looking at a recipe.
"My mother could never duplicate any of her mother's cooking," Connell says. "She would go through the motions of making the same dishes, but they didn't taste anywhere near as good as my grandmother's."
Food historian Alice Ross, who was senior editor of the 2004 Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America, say she's heard this saga before.
Her own Polish grandmother made savory stews, Ross says, but not her mother.
"In typical fashion, my mother was determined to become purely American. She cooked from newspaper and magazine articles. And as a result, her food was perhaps more wholesome than Grandmother's, but not as tasty."
Later, Ross said, her mother tried to capture the old ways.
"She tried to make my grandmother measure every ingredient so she could write it down. But then the recipes didn't quite work when she tried them out."
Our grandmothers learned to use their instincts in cooking, Ross says.
And so should we.
"Instead of trying to get your mother or grandmother to change their ways and write everything down," Ross says, "you should work on learning to develop your own instincts."
Get a feel for when a batter is thick or thin enough, when to add more flour, and what to do when your eggs are different sizes.
"We're so accustomed to using measuring cups and spoons - we want to translate everything into that form. But we can't," Ross says, "and we should not try."
Tools to help make a family cookbook
Wish you still had mom's copy of the 1947 Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook, deluxe edition, in the classic plaid binder?
Now you can buy a replacement at www.oldcookbooks.com.
Patricia "Eddie" Edwards, who runs the Nevada-based online shop, admits to being not much of a cook and says she has no cherished family recipes.
But she is fascinated by vintage cookbooks.
"In school I wasn't interested in history because history was about men and war. But when I started reading cookbooks, I got a sense of what life was like for women. Their whole lives revolved around cooking."
Her stock includes more than 15,000 out-of-print, used, vintage and antique cookbooks and recipe booklets, including Better Homes, Betty Crocker, Pillsbury, and Joy of Cooking, as well rare cookbooks from the 1800s. Information at 775-337-6477 or www.oldcookbooks.com.
Alternatively, you can create a family cookbook (with or without mom's help) using some of the tools available in bookstores or online.
There are bound journals, simple software, recipe templates, even professionals who will walk you through the process.
Here are just a few resources:
Dear Daughter . . . With Love From My Kitchen by Diane Pfeifer and Robyn Spizman ($18.95 from Strawberry Patch Press, 2006) is a spiral-bound blank journal, with more than 250 pages on which mom can record recipes, cooking tips and treasured memories.
For the boomerang effect, you give the book to mom, she writes in it, and then she gives it back to you.
Information at 800-875-7242 or www.strawberrypatch.net/cookbooks.
Creating an Heirloom: Writing Your Family's Cookbook by Wendy A. Boughner Whipple, is a how-to in book form. The self-published text is $14.95 from PublishAmerica.com. Information at Publish America, 301-695-1707 or www.creatinganheirloom.com.
Heritagecookbook.com is a Web site where you can make your own cookbook and illustrate it with black-and-white or color photos from your family album. The publishing process takes 15 days and the minimum order is four cookbooks. Prices start at $14.95, plus printing. Information at www.heritagecookbook.com firstname.lastname@example.org or 917-815-2866.
Janet Connell's Oyster Pie
Makes 6 to 8 servings
1 pint fresh oysters, shucked, in their liquid
21/2 cups coarsely crumbled saltine crackers
6 ounces (11/2 sticks) butter, melted
2 cups sliced mushrooms
3/4 cup light cream
1/2 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice EndTextStartText
1. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.
2. Drain the oysters and set aside about 1/4 cup of the liquid.
3. In a bowl, mix the cracker crumbs and melted butter. Set aside 3/4 of the mixture to use as a topping.
4. Combine the remaining 1/4 of the crumbs with the oysters, the reserved oyster liquid, mushrooms, cream, Worcestershire sauce and lemon juice. Turn the mixture into a glass pie plate (no pre-treatment of the plate is needed).
5. Top the oyster filling with the reserved cracker crumbs.
6. Bake at 325 for 60 minutes.
Per serving (based on 8):
283 calories, 5 grams protein, 9 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram sugar, 26 grams fat, 93 milligrams cholesterol, 275 milligrams sodium, 0.5 gram dietary fiber
Blueberry Lime Jam
Makes enough to fill 5 (12-ounce) jelly jars
41/2 cups fresh blueberries, rinsed, drained, patted dry
1 tablespoon grated lime peel
1/3 cup lime juice
61/2 cups sugar
2 pouches liquid pectin
1. Place blueberries in a large saucepan. Add the lime peel, juice and sugar; mix well.
2. Over medium-high heat, bring the mixture to a full rolling boil, stirring constantly. Remove from heat. Stir in the pectin.
3. Pour the hot mixture into hot, sterile, 12-ounce Ball jelly jars, leaving 1/4 inch headspace at the top.
4. Fasten and adjust jar caps; screw on lids. Place jars in a water bath and boil for 15 minutes. Tighten lids. Let cool at room temperature. Serve or store in a cool, dry area.
Powdered and liquid pectins are not interchangeable. Variables in ingredients and preparation may result in jam that does not set. If so, use it as dessert topping.
Per serving (based on 24 servings per jar):
44 calories, trace protein, 11 grams carbohydrates, 11 grams sugar, trace fat, no cholesterol, trace sodium, trace dietary fiber.
Jubilee Jumbles With Burnt Butter Glaze
Makes about 5 dozen cookies
For the cookies:
1/2 cup butter or shortening, softened
1 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated white sugar
2 large eggs
1 cup undiluted evaporated milk (not sweetened
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 (15-ounce) package raisins
1 (12-ounce) bag chocolate bits
For the glaze:
2 tablespoons butter
2 cups confectioners' sugar, sifted
1/4 cup evaporated milk
1. For the cookies: In a large mixing bowl, mix the butter or shortening, the brown and white sugars, and eggs. Stir in the evaporated milk and vanilla.
2. Sift together the flour, baking soda and salt and combine with the wet ingredient mixture.
3. Fold in the raisins and chocolate bits; chill for 1 hour.
4. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Lightly grease baking sheets.
5. Drop the dough by rounded tablespoons, 2 inches apart on the prepared baking sheets. Bake at 375 until cookies brown and test done, about 10 minutes. While warm, apply glaze.
6. For the glaze: On medium-high heat, heat the butter until golden brown. Add the confectioners' sugar and evaporated milk; beat until smooth. Brush or drizzle onto warm cookies.
128 calories, 2 grams protein, 22 grams carbohydrates, 16 grams sugar, 4 grams fat, 16 milligrams cholesterol, 82 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber.