On the Topic of Recipes

The inspiration for this project originally came from an old family recipe book. It was full of recipes handwritten by my great-grandmother 100 years ago. Some of them were from family members such as “Mothers Plum Pudding”, and some of them were from friends and neighbors, “Mrs. Deans Fruit Cake.” I really enjoyed looking through it, thinking about what I would have eaten if I’d been born a century earlier. It got me thinking that maybe others would be interested in these recipes as well. After talking to people and building a project team, we expanded the project to include more information on the crops that shaped the region. The reason for this still comes back to recipes. We want people to taste the food of the past and be able to connect to local history through that food. That is the goal, and it seemed so easy…. Research crops, find recipes featuring crops, bring them together in a tangible way.

Compilation recipe books at the PVHA
Compilation recipe books at the PVHA

So I have been trolling Santa Cruz for old recipes. The sources of these recipes vary. For example:

  • Recipes published in the Sentinel in the 1950s
  • Recipes published in dozens of compilation cookbooks made by local church groups from the 1920s-1970s
  • Recipes solicited for local cookbooks that were never made
  • Recipes found in the boxes of items donated to local archives, written in notebooks, diaries, letters, handwritten in the spaces between printed recipes in published books.
  • Notes from the domestic science class at Santa Cruz High School in 1911
  • Cookbooks handed out at local festivals
Recipe handwritten in published recipe book, PVHA

But there are challenges I didn’t consider.

The original book that inspired the project has delicious recipes made from scratch. As I was busy being enchanted by a recipe written more as a narrative than anything else, I didn’t consider the lack of basic information like temperature and cooking time. I also realized that there are ingredients and measurements I’m not familiar with. It says to steam a pudding in a baking powder tin. How big was a baking powder tin in 1908? Where do I get beef suet and would it really be good in cookies? Still, overall, the recipes are pretty good.

Then there were the dark ages of packaged foods. I cannot tell you how many recipes I’ve come across in the compilation books from the mid 1900s that don’t feature a single fresh ingredient. By far the most common ingredient I see is jello, followed closely by mayonnaise. And indeed, sometimes featured together in the same “salad.”

Recipes in a datebook at the MAH, Dye collection
Recipes in a datebook at the MAH, Dye collection

Don’t worry though, while the final book may feature a jello recipe here and there, we are finding plenty of delicious and interesting local recipes to enjoy. If you have an old family cookbook that we can look at, please contact us.

— Sierra Perry Ryan

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