Recipe Monday! What Mom Knew and I Don’t

I took my mother’s one cookbook from her kitchen drawer, The New American Cookbook, a few days after she died. Cover-less, missing it’s first 36 pages, the book served her more as a filing cabinet for clippings from newspapers, magazines, and box cartons. These were more worn and stained than the book’s pages. The ones in her own hand constituted our family’s table.

The small problem is they’re more grocery lists than recipes. Here’s one of my favorites

No idea where a tag could be lying around the house.

This wasn’t a problem for Mom. She heard what went into a dish and immediately knew not only how to cook it but how it should taste, a talent she expected everyone to have and was appalled when she found otherwise.

There are a couple she translated from a printed recipe, such as this one for fried chicken with clams

Mom brought clarity to the lack of measurements and scant directions:

The interesting thing about this recipe is what she added: paprika in the flour to give the chicken coating more flavor and Worcestershire sauce and walnuts to perk up the cream sauce. (See notation at end: Hlel [can’t really decipher it] Worshere (Worcestershire) sauce 1/2 walnuts.) Not sure about the walnuts but Worcestershire sauce was one of her go to’s for kicking up (or doctoring, as she called it) a recipe.

One of her favorite meals was sauerbraten. It appeared for dinner around the time she began working full-time and crock pots became the hot Christmas present. (Side note: The fact that many middle-class women in the 1970’s decided to earn a living on their own played a major role in the huge popularity of the crock pot and, a few years later, the food processor.) Sauerbraten has everything she loved in a meal–deep flavor, meaty, and effortless. The only recipe I found for it was a printed one but there are a few glaring holes in the instructions. I would need to channel Mom.

What makes sauerbraten sauerbraten is the meat’s long soak in a vinegary bath. The recipe, though, doesn’t give precise measurements for it but I figured 2 cups vinegar to 2 cups water. That seemed enough.

I meant to soak the meat for only three days but it ended up being six when I went home to Philadelphia to be with my aunt.

I took down my dutch oven the morning I returned because my crock pot is very small. Everything seemed to be going well except the liquid quickly evaporated and it soon became apparent that I didn’t have a sufficient amount to keep the meat from drying out. I mixed up another batch but, without the long fermenting with onions, bay leaves and peppercorns, it was what it was–watered down vinegar.

The meat cooked just fine and I took it out to rest then turned to finish the sauce. It was incredibly tart, no where near Mom’s. The recipe called for 1/4 cup brown sugar. I doubled that. It tasted a little better but rather than add more sugar, I folded in the gingersnaps, hoping their sweetness would help, too. The meat was also very sharp–not unpleasant but much more than I remembered it should taste. I reasoned that if I let the meat rest in the now sort-of sweet sauce, a little of it’s tartness would be drawn out and mellowed. It kind of worked.

The bumps in the sauce are melting gingersnaps.

In the meantime, I sauteed sliced red cabbage the way Mom taught me, and boiled a few potatoes. I also broke out a can of Pillsbury dinner biscuits, the appropriate historical accompaniment.

I later learned from my sister that Mom used white wine vinegar. I had used distilled. That’s why Mom’s sauerbraten was so silky smooth with a pleasing bite rather than the slightly puckering effect that resulted with mine.

“You should’ve known that,” my big sister said.

Yes, I should have known.

8 thoughts on “Recipe Monday! What Mom Knew and I Don’t

  1. I am going through the same process with a family cookbook.

    Based on the notes in the book, it appears I’m the 5th generation of the family to hold it.

    I’m having *EXACTLY* the same problems you are having with the “recipes”.

    It’s interesting, amazing and sometimes frustrating. 🙂

    1. It is, isn’t it? But also fascinating because these recipes showed how they cooked, their relationships with others who they either learned from and the level of experience they had to bring to recipes. The amount of hand holding in recipes these days and the sheer angst over dishes coming out tasting and looking exactly like what’s seen in various media is so concerning to me. It takes away the fun and most of all uniqueness that each cook should bring….I so envy you! 5 generations to sink into!! Let me know how it’s going.

      1. I wrote about one such “recipe” from the book at

        I think there was hand holding happening “back then” in the form of mom teaching her daughter or daughter watching mom cook, and I’m guessing that when daughter cooked it on their own for the first time….there was a bit of “angst”. 🙂

        My grandmother showed my fiancee and I how to make zmit kuchen. The “recipe” was in the book, but without being shown how to do it, I don’t think we would have ever figured it out. Even after being shown how, it still took a lot of practice to get it right. It is what I call a “fussy recipe”.

      2. I’ve cooked a couple of times with my 90 year old aunt–a huge repository of fancy cocktail dishes since she had to entertain a lot during her marriage. I started out writing them down but since we usually have a cocktail of our own while we’re making them, I’ve been recording them on my phone. The point is, oral history is so important. Food and recipes are such an integral part of our history we shouldn’t forget to make them a part of our stories. Which makes me very happy to hear about your work!

  2. Gosh, thanks. I have a pile of these these recipes on my desk not only from my mom but my aunt who was a more sophisticated cook and my mother-in-law who was anything but a cook. What’s so intriguing to me is how you can read their personalities into them and track their last bed through the age of the recipe. Sort of a living past. I so appreciate your support!