Looking back . . .

During the past few months, I have spent many hours trying to organize travel photos and make sense of my travel notes and journals.

I have also spent hours poring over newly-discovered recipe books and cards saved by previous generations of family. They are nothing if not enlightening, filled with tasty treats meant for celebrating with family and friends, and also packed with ideas about how to “stretch” food enough to get through hard times. Some of them surprised me, and a few made me weep.

One — Fried Oatmeal — brought back childhood memories of what I thought at the time was the best breakfast ever, served hot and crispy from my grandmother’s cast iron frying pan. It was Fried Cornmeal Mush, the leftover “raw material” from a Sunday cornbread or stuffing dish or perhaps leftover breakfast grits from a previous morning. Served with butter and syrup, it was a favorite way to start a day. However, cold cereal was much more common!

This particular card — one of a collection of recipes in a box that was obviously a promotional effort for Gold Medal Brands — notes that “This is a good way to use left over porridge.” I could not help but remember my grandmother’s refrain, “Waste not, want not,” as I pored over other cards in the sturdy wooden box.

Interspersed with the printed cards, there are traditional Scandinavian treats, some no doubt passed down from generations past. There are Polish and Russian dishes with beets, cabbages and potatoes. Many are hearty and filling, healthful and full of vegetables, but not overloaded with meat. Some are simple egg dishes. The desserts, I found, tend to be less sugary than today’s versions, and many rely on fresh fruit and spice for flavor and punch rather than chocolate and refined sugar.

There are many recipes for sweets made rich with butter and cream. Some of the old recipes required spending hours in the kitchen, and intensive preparations for holiday observances. Others were quick and easy, no doubt meant for times when there were more important things to think about, when food counted only as simple sustenance.

Hand-written recipes sometimes had notations — “easy or fine, or from Aunt Ida, or Papa’s favorite,” and I have found interesting notations even in familiar well-used hard-cover cookbooks, the standard reference for any cook back in the day. One made me smile: “Too much work!” Another simply bore a single word: “NO.” Many of these recipes are reminiscent of “Sunday dinners” and holidays, and of life well-lived in small towns or on farms throughout the flyover states. That is my heritage.

Others of those tattered recipe cards, however, bear the stigma of more difficult times, when food and funds were scarce, resources and pantry reserves were slim and many of the men were off fighting wars in foreign lands. There are notes about sugar substitutes — sugar was one of the first products to be rationed during WWII. But rationing followed in 1943 for meat, butter, margarine, canned fish, cheese, canned milk, fats and oils. Fresh food was often in short supply simply due to the season or to transportation snags.

From the war years, there are numerous ideas for Jello molds, salads and simple puddings. And there are “ration recipes” for meats.

Celebrations were more somber and homemakers “made do” in innovative ways in the effort to use available food stocks and to preserve a sense of hope during those lean days. Epidemics, wars, weather, the economy and a shift from farms to cities all seemed to align against a comfortable existence during much of the 20th Century. But family life continued.

A “Hard Times” Recipe for Cinderella Crisps

The Secret: Magically turn ordinary white bread into extraordinary tea crisps. Scrumptious!

The Recipe:

6 slices trimmed white bread, each cut in 4 strips

1 can (14 oz.) sweetened condensed milk

2 2/3 cups (about) Baker’s Angel Flake Coconut

Using two forks, roll bread strips in sweetened condensed milk, coating all sides. Then roll in coconut. Place on well-greased baking sheet and bake at 375 degrees for 8 to 10 minutes. Remove at once from baking sheet. Makes about 24.

I will confess that this is one I have not, and probably will not, try. Please let me know if you do!

Moving on to New Experiences

Today I take it as a personal challenge to try to make healthful, good-tasting meals out of simple ingredients. I also have some recipe cards that became my “go-to” resource when I was a young bride with little kitchen experience to guide me. Perhaps not surprisingly, I still occasionally refer to them. I read recipe books with as much delight as the latest novels, but I tend to make up recipes as I go along, instead of adhering strictly to the directions. Although I like good food, I do not love spending unnecessary hours in the kitchen.

I collect recipes from my travels and love recreating the tastes of faraway places when I return home. I like to experiment with new flavors and seasonings, and I think meals should look appetizing, smell wonderful and taste great. Most of the time, I think meals should be prepared fresh, not pre-packaged or ordered as take out. I take as much delight in preparing a meal for two as I do planning a holiday open house. Those holiday gatherings have been in short supply this past year, haven’t they?

Perhaps before too many more special days pass, we will once again be able to celebrate together, with hugs and laughter, with old folks and babies, with new-found friends, and especially with family. This pandemic year has taken its toll. Hopefully we will get beyond it and look forward to the good times to come!

For now, it’s enough to remember.