Long before the internet became a storage center for any recipe you could ever wish to cook, moms had a different system for finding the recipes they’d use to feed their families. They wrote them down on recipe cards and stored them by the hundreds in recipe boxes and binders.
For some of us, the strongest memories of Mom take place in the kitchen, and reading her handwritten recipe cards puts us right back at her side as we helped her cook and offered our services as taste testers.
We asked a few friends of Legacy to share images of the handwritten recipe cards that they saved after their mothers and grandmothers passed away, along with the stories that come to mind when they cook from those cards today. Looking back at the recipe cards brought up powerful memories and emotions… and it may have prompted a few of us to step into the kitchen and recreate those favorite dishes that were once made with love by Mom.
Valerie: Banana Nut Bread
“I asked my mom to write down some recipes for me maybe 10 years ago. She typically made things without measuring and instead did it by ‘handfuls’ and ‘about this much,’ but I made her write them down for me, because I’m not very good in the kitchen and needed cups and tablespoon amounts. My mom wanted to teach me growing up, but I wasn’t interested and I remember saying, ‘We have microwaves – I’m all set.’ It’s an opportunity I really miss not taking!
“What’s most significant to me about these recipes is my mom died unexpectedly three years ago, shortly after Mother’s Day, from complications with pneumonia at 64. When I’d asked her years before to write down those recipes, I was only thinking that I wanted to make the banana bread and peanut butter cookies from my childhood because nothing is better and I need measurements! What they’ve turned into are two treasures. We didn’t know we were on borrowed time. You can see the pages are stained from use, which I think my mom would love because it means that I’m actually using them!”
Judi: Hot Buttered Rum Mix
“My mom, Joyce Albers, died 8 years ago. She was a fabulous cook, and also taught high school home ec classes. She could whip up a pie crust in her sleep. My dad, Tom, would push back from the dinner table and say ‘Good meal, Joyce.’ My kids still say that!
“Mom would have a tub of hot buttered rum mix in the freezer, so if people stopped by at the holidays she could serve them a tasty hot drink. The things I like about this recipe is ‘real hot water’ – not boiling, or anything specific. And that she wrote ‘Love, Mom’ on it. I suspect I asked for it, she wrote it and mailed it.”
Chuck: Chocolate Chip Cookies
“Every year just before Christmas when I was a kid, my mom, her sister, and her mother would spend an entire weekend baking cookies. Usually at Nana’s house, but one year that it was at our house I remember a friend coming over and being truly overwhelmed by the site of hundreds of cookies cooling on every flat surface. Traditional Italian cookies were the main event, but as a kid my favorite were chocolate chip cookies. They made a bunch of those at Christmas, too, and of course my mom would make a batch here and there during the year, too.
“I was in my late twenties when my mom died, and learning all the family recipes had just not been on my radar. By the time it was, my mom’s sister and her mother were both gone, too.
“I had ended up with my mom’s recipe tins, but though the cookie recipes were there, they were intimidating: a lot of knowledge about how to proceed was assumed and not written down, and they were written to make a ton of cookies. Luckily, an aunt on my father’s side had her own versions of the Italian cookies and was very happy to teach me how to make them. My wife has a strong family tradition of cookie-making as well, so we took on the task of making her family’s traditional cookies as well as my family’s Italian cookies.
“One year I was telling my wife about my mom’s chocolate chip cookies, that they were my favorite cookies as a kid and that they were different somehow than the usual Toll House recipe. My mom had her own special variation, though I couldn’t say exactly what was different. We went looking through her recipe tins and sure enough, we found it, written in my Mom’s hand on a folded sheet of notepaper. And it was of course enough to make a thousand cookies or so. But we did the work of cutting it down to a more reasonable yield, and made them that Christmas. When they came out of the oven, I knew they looked right. And when I tasted one it transported me right back to her kitchen. That first bite literally brought tears to my eyes.
“Another year, looking through the tins again, we found another chocolate chip cookie recipe, this one professionally printed and clipped off from the box that Crisco sticks come in. Crisco. That was the odd ‘secret ingredient’ in my mom’s recipe, the ingredient that made them so different from most chocolate cookie recipes that use butter. We compared it to the recipe my mom had written down and it became clear: my mom’s special chocolate chip cookie recipe was just the recipe from the side of a box of Crisco, but tripled.
“Now my nieces and nephews are young adults, and, at a younger age than I did, have become interested in learning the family recipes. So we have them over to make Christmas cookies every year, the Italian cookies and the chocolate chips. And, like my mom, we sometimes make a batch at other times throughout the year. They are my daughter’s favorite cookies, just like they were mine when I was a kid, and she has been helping me make them since she was about two years old. Now, at not quite six, she nearly has the ingredients list memorized and proclaims herself a chocolate chip cookie expert.”
Nancy: Rye Bread
“I grew up on a farm, where all the local farmers would come together at each other’s farms during busy times to help out. In the summertime, every four weeks or so, we would have a crew of eight or ten local men working on our farm, and it was Mom’s job to make a noon meal for them, and I would help her. Right after breakfast, we would have to get started on lunch. This was a big meal that might include a pot roast and potatoes, green beans from the garden, probably some pie, and Betty’s rye bread was always part of it – there had darned well better be Betty’s rye bread. It was well known that Betty made delicious rye bread – at one point, her recipe was printed in the local newspaper.
“At noontime, the men would come in from the field, and she would have put a table outside under a tree, with a big bowlful of water and a bar of soap and a mirror, stuck onto a nail on the tree, in case they wanted to comb their hair, and the men would wash up outside. Then they’d come in and eat around the dining room table.
“While she was making the rye bread every day, I might help out by churning butter from our cow’s milk, or stemming strawberries to make jam to spread on the bread. We would work together in the kitchen and chat. After lunch, I’d help with the dishes – and as soon as they were done, she started making an afternoon meal to bring to the men in the fields. She’d put together ham sandwiches, and she might make a cake, and a pot of coffee, and a big pitcher of Kool-Aid. About 3:30, we’d pack it up in wicker baskets in the car and drive across the fields to wherever we could see the tractors. Everybody would get out and find a shady place to sit and eat. Again – an entire meal! Supper would be a lighter meal, maybe tuna sandwiches, just for the family. But all she did, all day at these times, was cook.
“This recipe is written on my grandmother’s, my mom’s mom’s, personalized recipe card.”
Marggy: Potato Casserole
“This is a recipe by my mom, Julie Jessie. I am not sure where she got it, but we had this casserole every Christmas for as long as I remember and every potluck we ever went to.
For me, this recipe is special not just because of the memory of the yummy food, but just seeing it in her handwriting brings back such fond memories of my childhood. She published a cookbook for her work, where everyone submitted recipes and this was in it – we all received a copy, so even as an adult, I used this recipe for potlucks and when I donated food at Thanksgiving. It was always a hit, and people asked for the recipe, or requested that she bring this potato casserole.
“When she died tragically in a car accident three years ago, a childhood friend’s mom came to her visitation, and brought me two huge pans of her potato casserole…she said she still uses that recipe and still thinks of my mom every time. After that, I dug through my mom’s stuff to find this recipe because it suddenly meant much more than just ingredients. It was a reminder that food and recipes are best when shared with love.”
Emily: Swedish Meatballs
“This is my grandmother’s Swedish Meatball recipe. My grandmother herself wasn’t Swedish (instead, she was third-generation German American in Chicago), but when she married my grandfather (a Swedish immigrant), she threw herself into that identity. Except, of course (according to family lore), for the time when the pastor’s wife at the Swedish Lutheran church said something derisive about the German Lutheran church in the neighborhood. Needless to say, the family then joined the German Lutheran church. She was never a particularly expert cook, but she had a few really good recipes — and this is one of them.”
Susan: Rhubarb Crumble Pudding
“My grandmother cooked everything from scratch. Thanksgiving and Christmas, we would journey out to Lake Bracken, fondly known as the Lake, just outside Galesburg, IL. There was carpet in the kitchen, which I always thought was odd, until we purchased our house, and there was carpet in our kitchen! I always remember Grandmother’s desserts. Pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving, and she would cut the leftover unbaked crust into shapes, sprinkle them with cinnamon sugar, and bake them till they were golden brown. For Christmas she would make a frozen cranberry dessert.
“I wrote to my aunt asking for Grandmother’s rhubarb pie recipe, not strawberry rhubarb like so many people make. She sent the pudding recipe, and explained that the pie was just butter crust with the Betty Crocker pie filling recipe! I’ve made the pie several times and it takes me back to the Lake.”
Lynn: Holly Wreaths
“My mother, known in my family as Grandma Evie, loved to cook and, even more, loved to bake. She often planned dinner based on what would go well with dessert. There was always a dessert! She liked to try new recipes, and when she found something she liked, she would hand write three recipe cards – one for herself, one for my sister, and one for me.
“The ‘Holly Wreaths’ recipe is part of my treasured collection. I don’t recall where she found the recipe. It might have been from a magazine, the newspaper, or from a friend. She started making these at Christmas in the late 70s or early 80s, and they were an immediate hit. After my mother’s death in 1984, I continued to make them for my family every year. They have become part of our Christmas tradition, and I always think of my mother when I’m making them.
“My children now have children, so this Christmas treat is being passed along to the next generation. I think Grandma Evie would be delighted.”
“When I was a kid, I would usually spend a week each summer in Clarks Summit (a small town in upstate PA, about a 2.5 hour drive north of Philly) visiting my maternal grandparents. My G’ma and I would spend the week doing various arts & crafts projects and she would also teach me how to cook some of her signature recipes that I loved. Which, being Ukrainian, usually involved copious amounts of dough, potatoes, and dairy!
“This recipe is for her kolachy, an Eastern European pastry which is a long log-shaped roll with filling that you cut into slices. It’s great with coffee, and there is much debate in my family as to which filling is better, the poppy seed or the walnut. I fall firmly in the poppy seed camp.
“Making these is an all-day affair, so when she would make them, she would make a dozen or more and then freeze them. Whenever they would come down to Philly to visit us, my G’ma would bring at least two or three of them and they would be gone within a few days!
“My job was usually to help with rolling out the dough and then spreading the filling onto the dough before my G’ma would carefully roll them up. I remember that sometimes I also got to do the finishing touch of sprinkling the sugar on them before we put them in the oven. They would come out perfectly golden, with the sugar all crystalized.
“My G’ma passed away this past July, so for Christmas I dug out my envelope of her handwritten recipe cards and scanned them all. I made small photo albums for my mom, my aunt, and my cousins with about a dozen of her recipes, including this one. It felt like an important way for all of us to remember her, and I thought that if each of us made a recipe from the book, it would be our way of keeping her memory alive.
“I haven’t made kolachy in a long time, but just seeing her neat, cursive handwriting on these index cards brings back memories of spending summers at her house, elbow-deep in flour and sugar!”
Jane: Sourdough Cinnamon Rolls
“Alice Marie Herold Williams was a homemaker, an old-fashioned name for a stay-at-home mom. Although she was profoundly disabled from rheumatoid arthritis, she still cooked, baked and was one of the best seamstresses around.
“I recall coming home from grade school, probably 1968 or 1969. I could smell this delicious aroma perfuming the air half a city block away. I knew what it meant: That foul-smelling brew she’d had up on top of the refrigerator had been turned into something wonderful.”
Kim: Streusel Topping for Apple Pie
“The special thing about this pie is that it was my grandpa’s favorite. My grandma was a wonderful cook. Most Sundays growing up we would drive in the city and she would make a wonderful supper and two pies: banana cream for us, and this one for Grandpa. Sunday supper means the world to me. I have my family, my mom, my in-laws and my sister’s family most Sundays since the kids were babies. Today when I served this pie, my mom was thrilled. ‘Grandpa’s favorite’ she said, and added a little more ice cream in his honor.”
Peg: Irish Soda Bread
“This is my mother’s handwriting (who is still very much alive) but her Aunt Vera’s (mostly) recipe. I’m not sure of the exact differences with my grandmother’s (her sister’s) recipe – probably the amounts of sugar or buttermilk, I’m guessing. Again, my grandmother never wrote hers down! I wrote hers down when I watched her make it years ago.
“My grandmother was about 16 years older than her sister, and they basically did not grow up together, as my grandmother was the eldest and shipped off to America to earn money to send back home. My memories of my grandmother are very strongly linked with this recipe. Whenever she came to visit, she brought a loaf (or made one while staying with us). I’d slather it with butter and to me it tasted like heaven!”
“This is the recipe card for paczkis, a Polish donut, that my grandma used to make. I had asked my mom about making these after my grandma had passed away, and she said that the recipe was gone. Luckily we found a box of my grandma’s stuff a couple years later, and it was in there! I kept a bunch of her handwritten recipes and framed the two (even though they are smudged and stained) that will always remind me of grandma for my mom one Christmas. Now, my mom, Samantha and I make paczkis together a couple times a year.
“My biggest memory with the paczkis is from when I was younger. My mom made them for a family get-together, and they ended up not getting cooked all the way through. My uncle, however, didn’t let this stop him from eating several of them. A little while later he started to complain that his stomach hurt and that he felt really full. We made fun of him and said it was because they had not been cooked all the way and the dough was rising in his stomach. We told him he better be careful out his stomach would keep expanding until it filled up the room.”
Lauren: Yorkshire Pudding
“Yorkshire pudding – using this recipe brought from England by my great grandmother – was always my favorite part of Thanksgiving and Christmas meals. One of my favorite things about Yorkshire pudding is the rationing of the portions. I fondly remember every year asking Grandma or Aunt Sue how many pieces of Yorkshire Pudding I could have with dinner, and the answer was always the same, no more than two.
“This killed me! Why? Why with our large group were only two pans made and why could we just not make more?! I wanted more than two, and so did all of my cousins. However, I think the rationing made them an extra special treat, especially since the family made it only at holiday time. I also discovered, once I began to cook, that only two pans fit in the oven, and that generally was the reason why only two pans were made, and who wants to continue to cook once all the food is on the table?”
Connie: Russian Tea Cakes
“When I see this recipe, it brings back memories of my mother sitting at the kitchen table, trading recipes with another woman the way my brothers traded baseball cards. It’s not a particularly wonderful recipe, but it evokes feelings of a time in my life when it was someone else’s responsibility to care for and protect me. And that was a job my mother took very seriously! She once told me, ‘No one will ever love your kids like you do.’ After I had my first child, I found out she was right.”
Sharon: Popcorn Balls
“Imagine Halloween in the 1950s and 1960s. Costumed kids would walk the neighborhood in search of goodies to collect in their grocery bag. Backyard apples and pears dropped in bags that sometimes broke through the bottom were the only treats not coveted by the little goblins.
“Our house was the most popular on the block. Our mother let us help make popcorn balls. Kids would come back for seconds and thirds. It was such a special and delicious treat. We looked forward to homemade goodies since this was long before tainted candy was a problem. At that time, candy thermometers were not routinely used. Mother would drop boiling syrup in cold water then test it to make sure it was the right consistency. Then she would have us butter our washed hands and quickly shape the candy-coated popcorn into balls. We always ran the risk of minor burns from the syrup, but the end result was definitely worth it.”