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Reviving Old Recipes

Heard any good food ideas lately? Food editors on cable networks or blogs increasingly refer to recipes as food ideas. Food ideas must seem like less work, or more fun, than using the word recipe! Although the semantics may change from one generation to the next, the impulse to share new ways to prepare delicious foods is timeless.

My grandma always referred to her recipes as receipts, but I never knew why. Recently, I learned that the word receipt, defined as a formula or set of directions, was used as long ago as 1392. It could likely be traced to my grandma's English heritage.

The use of the word is still common outside the U.S. How many other food-related words and terms are rooted in a culinary culture that’s increasingly unfamiliar to us today? I enjoy reading recipes collected by my mom and grandma, and I still use several. Yet, I'm intimidated by others; reading these recipes makes me feel something has been lost in translation.

I'm sure I'm not the only one with an old recipe collection who has trouble adapting them to correspond to modern ingredient packaging or cooking equipment. A few years ago, I made Grandma's Scalloped Corn and Oyster Casserole recipe. It calls for canned oysters. (People in the landlocked Midwest didn’t have access to fresh oysters like we do today.) I wasn’t sure how to adapt it to fresh oysters. I needed a little help from my mother-in-law, Betty Lingren, to adjust the liquid measurements, and the recipe turned out just fine.

One new trend makes it easier to revive many vintage recipes. Most of them call for lard, and lard is back! A 2012 cookbook called "Lard: The Lost Art of Cooking With Your Grandma’s Secret Ingredient" by the editors of Grit magazine has been selling well.However, is the lard sold in stores today the same as Grandma's home-rendered lard?

Do recipe measurements need to be adjusted?

Reading between the lines

Old recipes also are challenging to prepare because they often contain cryptic ingredients: 8¢ worth of pig’s knuckle; 1/3 cup of fat; a pinch of salt; 2 cups of clabbered milk; 1 t. saleratus; or butter the size of a walnut. What about mastering the mysteries of mincemeat, oleo, Milnot, and a No. 2 can?

Old recipes also mince words. It was assumed that all cooks knew enough to:

• Set a slow oven.
• Prepare a recipe to taste.
• Add enough flour to make a stiff dough.
• Make a well in the flour.
• Add cold water by drops.

Recently, I ran across a recipe for homemade egg noodles. They’re becoming a lost art and definitely are an oral tradition. My mother-inlaw taught her grandchildren to make noodles. My daughter, Alexa, got a refresher course when she was drafted into helping make noodles for the traditional holiday meal of chicken and noodle soup at Grandma’s house last year.

Below is an example of a shorthand recipe for jam, written by my grandma:

1 lb. apricots
Soak overnight
1 qt. rhubarb (maybe more)
1 orange rind
6-8 cups sugar

A Raisin Spice Cake recipe from Grandma's cookbook lists ingredients, concluding with the directions, "Mix as for any cake."


I recognize many familiar names in the cookbook from my home community of Hornick, Iowa. The sparely worded recipe above is from my mom’s dear cousin, Edith Rose. A few contributors hailed from far-flung locations, like Baguio City, Philippine Is. They must have been married to servicemen. I also love to read the hometown news on the back of recipes clipped from newspapers in Grandma's cookbook. For instance, "Mr. and Mrs. Owen Bainbridge and Brenda of Anthon visited Friday evening in the parental Joe Bainbridge home."

No-nonsense delicious

Not everyone has old family recipe books. The good news is, today you can browse through websites and blogs devoted to vintage cookbooks and heritage recipes such as,, or You can even search for a long-lost recipe.

Recipes are a portal into the past. In the 1930s, women made do with what they had. In the 1940s, war-time rationing called for substitutions. For instance, Potato Pancakes (no flour) and a butterless, sugarless, eggless, milkless cake (only ingredients are molasses, flour, butter, and soda). The 1950s ushered in processed ingredients: condensed soups, marshmallows, and Jell-O.

Vintage recipes rely on common staples. Women didn’t run to the grocery store. They had to do laundry (using a handwringer washer), baking (homemade bread), cleaning (with carpet sweepers), and, of course, childcare.

When my family visited North Carolina last summer, I bought a jar of tomato preserves, based on a hazy childhood memory. Sure enough, when I arrived home, I found a Tomato Preserve recipe in Grandma’s cookbook. Her handwritten check mark beside it was all the encouragement I needed to try it!

Brush up on your culinary vocabulary!

Cooking and baking share a unique vernacular. You may take the meaning for granted, but here are the precise definitions for some familiar terms:

Pinch: Amount that can be picked up between your thumb and first two fingers; less than 1/8 teaspoon.
Slow oven: 300°F.
Quick oven: 375°F. to 400°F.
Hot oven: 400°F. to 425°F.
Moderate oven: About 350°F.
No. 2 can: Equals 2-1/2 cups or 20 ounces.
Brown: Sauté meat or vegetables in a skillet with oil or butter until brown.
Coat: To cover both sides of a food with flour, crumbs, or batter.
Cream: Mix butter, shortening, or margarine with sugar until smooth and creamy.
Dice: Cut food into small cubes.
Dot: Add small pieces of ingredients over food for even melting (usually butter).
Flute: Press edges of a pie crust together in a decorative way.
Ice: Spread a glaze or frosting on a cake.
Mince: Chop in tiny pieces.
Pare: Peel or trim a food, usually vegetables

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