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Special Section Archives The Altamont Enterprise, April 28, 2011

The Tale of Two Cookbooks
A blog based on my grandmothers’ recipes reaches around the world

By Ellen Zunon

I’m not quite sure how it happened, but somehow I came into possession of two old cookbooks that had belonged to each of my grandmothers. Since the beginning of the year, I’ve started trying out the recipes, one by one, writing up my culinary experiments, and posting them on a blog that I started at http://twocookbooks.blogspot.com

The cookbooks are close to a hundred years old, their pages brown and stiff with age. The first, which belonged to my paternal grandmother, “Grandma Minnie,” is a handwritten notebook of recipes collected from friends and relatives in the Mohawk Valley in the early part of the 20th Century.

The second, entitled in Dutch “Eenvoudige Berekende Recepten,” which I translate as “Simple Hearty Fare,” must have been sent to my mother’s mother by relatives in the Netherlands. (My maternal grandparents emigrated from the Netherlands in 1911.)

The book was published in Rotterdam, Holland in 1922 and bears the following epigraph on the title page: “With new times comes new knowledge.” Its author was Martine Wittop Koning, a Dutch cooking and nutrition teacher who lived from 1870 to 1963.

It has been a challenge so far to translate the Dutch recipes and figure out the proper quantities of ingredients. European recipes most often list quantities in metric measurements of weight rather than volume, as we are used to doing in the United States.

So far, I’ve tried out Dutch recipes for chicken curry soup, winter carrots, mashed potatoes with string beans, potato croquettes, and Dutch sand cookies. Organic food fans should enjoy them  — the dishes are all made from scratch, with all natural ingredients and no additives.

Grandma Minnie’s cookbook sometimes presents a challenge as well, since the recipes are often merely a list of ingredients without a clear indication of the steps involved in preparation. Sometimes the measurements are idiosyncratic, such as in the recipe for “Farley’s Dutch Cake,” which directs the cook to add “butter the size of an egg” to the batter. I made an educated guess on that one, and added a half stick of margarine, which amounts to a quarter of a cup.

The recipes I’ve tried out from this book include meat loaf, escalloped potatoes, apple fritters, and “Tip-Top Cake.” I’m looking forward to trying corn pudding and butterscotch pie next.

Since the recipes were probably collected during the Prohibition Era, they also include instructions for making your own elder blossom wine and dandelion wine. A notation in bold handwriting on the bottom of that page cautions, “Warning! Don’t drink too much of this hootch.” I’m not sure if I’ll try that one out!

The blog has afforded me an opportunity to research some family history and include family folklore and old photographs from our collection. It is also interesting to evoke from time to time events in the larger community during the era in which the cookbooks were being used.

The blog’s audience is primarily my extended family, but the web-based software enables me to tally the number and geographic origin of “hits” on the blog’s pages. The majority of hits come from within the United States, but distant relatives in the Netherlands and Australia have also looked at the blog. And there have been a few isolated hits from as far away as Indonesia, Ireland, India, and Singapore. I believe these must have been people searching for a recipe for potatoes or curry soup.

Anyway, it’s fun to speculate about what people half a world away think when coming across these short essays from upstate New York.

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