Cooking with Betsy: The Cookbooks

Mention the words: “Mom’s cookbooks” to either of my siblings, and I’ll surely get uplifted eyebrows with a knowing side eye. Why? Betsy accumulated approximately 10,000 cookbooks in her prime. Yep. That’s the correct amount of zeros. Betsy read them like novels, acquiring them by the dozen, like a squirrel collects nuts. The analogy fit; they were buried in our home, everywhere. When the bookcase in her kitchen nook was filled, my father built a specialized bookcase for her, with floor to ceiling shelves and a row of cabinets at the bottom. All filled. The living room bookcases began to fill. When those ran out of space, Betsy began acquiring more bookcases, which lined the back stairways of our 3-floor home. When those filled, the steps to the attic began to fill. The number of cookbooks became a frequent bone of contention between Betsy & Ted.

Her favorites were locally sourced cookbooks that she would snatch up when she and my father were traveling. They contained the authentic flavors of a particular region. Those books were time-tested family recipes collected, for example, by a women’s auxiliary organization and put together to raise money for the children’s hospital in their town. Betsy knew most of her collection; where the book was, and what recipes in it. Many were either dog-eared or marked for a return visit with a recycled shopping list as a place marker. But God help us when Betsy had a dinner party fast approaching and she couldn’t find a specific recipe from a specific book. She was a woman on a mission, and Betsy wouldn’t rest until the recipe was found. Which it always was.

When Betsy moved to a small apartment after her beloved Ted died, she donated almost all of her cookbooks to the Junior League of Buffalo to sell and auction off for charity. It was a huge event, raising many thousands of dollars.

We have the obligatory cookbooks over here at K2.0; The Joy of Cooking, Julia Child’s 1st book, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Sheila Lukins’ The Silver Palate, and Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Italian Cooking, but our favorite go-to cookbooks have never been published.

They are the well worn, time-tested, family favorites. You ALL have one. The books put together with handwritten, oil stained, loose leaf papers. The books that hold a thousand memories. The books that are opened meticulously with care, because of the many newsprint recipes, loose index cards and the occasional obituary that tumble out. The homemade, handwritten cookbooks of our mothers, aunts and grandmothers.

Recipes were handed down from one generation to the next, as evidenced by this one for hvorost, which is a Russian fried dough. Who needs a measuring cup when you have an eggshell? My great-grandmother Isabel didn’t need to document the full directions, as the actual procedure was well know to her. Why bother to write it all out?

My grandmother, whom we grandchildren called “Dickie,” kept books that were precise and exact. Peppered with greeting cards, announcements from the social pages of the Courier Express, and time-saving memos, her books represent an era of scratch cooking that we’ll never experience again. (Making iced tea was an 8-step process that included heating it three times!)

Betsy’s many cookbooks are scattered throughout the family. All of them are bursting at the seams, bound by large rubber bands so they don’t explode on contact.

Betsy started me off with a cookbook of my childhood favorites when I was about to be married. Pages and pages of handwritten recipes. What I would give to sit down with Betsy today and talk about cooking. I miss you, mama.

Family cookbooks are the chronicles of family history.

The recipes are often marked with the person who gave them the recipe, representative of a family recipe tree. Each branch of the tree is celebrated with their favorite dishes, cookies and soups. Every recipe tells a little bit about the family who loved it. (Imagine if those pages could talk!)

My sister wrote her own book in 1985, which I still cherish. She blended family favorites from both sides of her family, introducing us to many of her husband’s favorite dishes. It’s still my go-to for spaghetti sauce and Spiedies.

When our boys went off to live on their own, I supplied them both with a cookbook of family favorites in a looseleaf binder, similar to the one provided to me by Betsy. Since the boys were known to exist primarily on pizza, the first part of the book was a well-researched chapter on nutrition. (Of course, right? I’m a mom!) The following chapters were healthy recipes that could be made on a tight budget. The last chapters were family favorites. Neither boy has their book now; they “don’t know what happened to it.” (Trash can, I presume! LOL.) These kids have the internet and “Skip the Dishes” and grocery stores with pre-made entrées. Why bother cooking?

Now that all three children are becoming more domesticated, perhaps they would like a copy again. We’ll shake the dust off the old book, and print some fresh copies of the family favorites. In looseleaf binders.

What are the best parts of your family recipe collections?

Comment below!

2 thoughts

  1. I compiled a family cookbook over 20 years ago. Family members contributed favorite recipes along with a story about when they served it and a little history about it. It is truly a keepsake that everyone still uses.

    1. Rosanne, that is a great idea to involve the extended family! Food is the family experience that nourishes our bodies, our hearts and our souls. ❤️

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