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Editor's note: On your next visit to the museum, take a look at our new exhibition FOOD: Transforming the American Table, 1950-2000, which explores the social and technological changes that have affected what's on our plates.
Like so many people, one of my earliest holiday memories is related to—what else—food. In particular, when December arrives, I start to crave gingerbread cookies made by my paternal grandmother, who we called Grandmere.
These cookies were rich, chewy, spicy molasses cookies cut out in the shapes of angels, birds, and houses, then iced with a smooth vanilla glaze. When we spent Christmas with Grandmere, they were a staple of the dessert table; if we were spending the holidays apart, they would arrive in the mail, carefully packed in wax paper. (Sadly, no pictures of the cookies survive. That's how fast they were typically scarfed down. What? They were REALLY good.) As Grandmere slowed down, she stopped baking them herself, but wrote out the recipe for me and my sister and our three cousins.
A few years after she passed away, I decided to try to make them for Christmas. The only problem? I couldn’t find the recipe, and neither could anyone else in the family. What to do? I poked around online, not wanting to admit that the secret of Grandmere’s cookies might be lost. There are, of course, tons of wonderful recipes out there, but none seemed quite right.
Then, inspiration struck! I had recently gotten married and been given one of her cookbooks as a wedding present—The Settlement Cook Book, dog-eared and full of Grandmere's notes. This copy had been given to her in 1933 by her own mother shortly before her wedding, but the cookbook was first printed in 1901, and was intended to help recent immigrants learn about American culture.
Grandmere's parents had come to the United States from Germany in the early 1900s. You can check out excerpts from the cookbook online, courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society. There was a recipe pasted in the back for a molasses cookie that looked promising. One of my cousins remembered Grandmere mentioning the recipe came from a magazine. Could this be the original source?
I dutifully whipped up a batch, and they came out looking pretty good! And then, I took a bite. They were…okay. A bit bland, or as one taste tester put it, "a little dusty." But they were definitely not Grandmere's cookies. Still, I got a kick out of using her cookbook, imagining her trying out different recipes, perhaps trying to recreate dishes from her own childhood.
I've continued searching for a recipe that comes close to hers, using my family as taste testers. We all agree that I haven't quite cracked the code yet. But that's okay. It's a delicious problem to have, and each time I try a new one, I think of Grandmere and appreciate all the love she put into every batch.
Have you ever tried to recreate a long-lost family recipe? Do you use cookbooks passed onto you through your family?
Andrea Lowther is manager of visitor programs.