Recipe Hide and Seek

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By Valerie J. Frey | Mar 6, 2018

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Some likely places to look for loose recipes are in the kitchen, pantry, or utility room.
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"Preserving Family Recipes" by Valerie J. Frey combines tips and archival principles to teach readers everything they need to know to gather, adjust, and safely preserve family recipes.

Preserving Family Recipes: How to Save and Celebrate Your Food Traditions(University of Georgia Press, 2015), by Valerie J. Frey provides useful tips for successfully gathering and preserving family recipes. The book offers advice on interviewing relatives, documenting family food traditions, and collecting oral histories to help readers savor their memories. The following excerpt is from Chapter 1, “Setting a Course.”

Sometimes we are handed a stack of orphaned recipes, but there are also times when they have to be sought out in a person’s home after they move to an assisted-living facility or pass away. You may be lucky enough to find a card file or recipe notebook waiting in the kitchen, but be prepared for a treasure hunt for recipes scribbled on envelopes, napkins, and the like. As someone who has conducted professional on-site appraisals for estates, I can tell you that likely places to look for loose recipes include between the pages of printed cookbooks (which might also have manuscript recipes jotted down on the inside covers or blank spaces), at the bottom of kitchen drawers, inside kitchen cabinets (sometimes taped to the inside of the doors), junk drawers, interspersed with coupons or grocery lists, and with warranties or manuals from kitchen appliances. The best hunting is usually in the kitchen, pantry, or utility room, but also check desks, correspondence collections, diaries, and between the pages of vegetable gardening books or seed catalogs. Bulky cooking equipment such as canning supplies or ice cream churns might be stored in outbuildings and have recipes tucked away with them.

Deciphering Handwritten Recipes

Once you’ve collected some orphaned recipes, deciphering handwriting is often the next challenge. For a display at the Georgia Archives, the staff Exhibits Committee examined a handwritten recipe for pudding, yet because the letters were so looped and fancy, we had a hard time deciding if it was for “Cabbage Pudding” or “Cottage Pudding.” Then we found the first word was a challenge as well: 1 pf. Poof? Puff? Comparing it with other recipes, we realized it must be “pt.” for pint. What with damage, fading, or simply poor handwriting, accurately reading recipes can be a challenge, and you don’t always have the benefit of a committee full of history professionals. Here are some steps that may help you decipher old recipes:

1) Slowly read the recipe aloud. (This may be particularly helpful if some of the words are misspelled or if your recipe comes from a time when spelling was less standardized.)

2) Transcribe the recipe to the best of your ability, working line by line. Your transcription should include the same number of words per line as the original so that it is easy to compare the two side by side.

3) On your transcription, mark any problem words. If a word seems incomprehensible, list as many of the individual letters as you can.

4) Brainstorm a list of possible spellings or word choices for each problem word.

Ask for Help. If you’re still stumped, two heads can be better than one. Ask someone else to go through the four steps above. (A high-quality scan of the recipe will keep you from having to pass around the original.) Another person may interpret problem words differently, so don’t share your transcription until your helper has tried solving it alone.

The most productive helper is probably going to be a family member or friend who knows the cook’s handwriting well. (And hopefully the recipe can also be compared to other documents in the cook’s handwriting.) A good second choice is to seek the help of someone who often works with old handwriting — a genealogist, archivist, historian, or rare manuscripts dealer. If you find a handwriting helper who also knows a lot about cooking, you may have hit the jackpot!

Researching Problem Words. If you’ve done the steps above by yourself and with help but still don’t know all the words in the recipe, the next task is to do some research on the Internet, in your local library, or at an archives. Compare the recipe to other recipes that share the same name or have similar ingredients. Recipes from the same region and period stand the best chance of being a helpful match, so community cookbooks (compilations of recipes from a community or group, usually created for charity purposes) may be particularly useful. Food dictionaries or cooks’ dictionaries as well as comprehensive cookbooks may be helpful.

Keep in mind that the problem word(s) may come from a culture or language unfamiliar to you. For instance, if the recipe comes from Louisiana, check Cajun cookbooks to see if perhaps the word is one specific to that area, such as “mirliton” (a member of the gourd family, more commonly called chayote) or “tasso” (a type of highly seasoned smoked pork). Foreign cookbooks might also be helpful, as the Cajuns descended from French-speaking Acadians, and Louisiana is also rich in Spanish and African influences. Check to see if your cook was a recent immigrant or lived in an area abounding in immigrant culture. If so, foreign language dictionaries may also be helpful.

Handwriting Guides. For more clues about handwritten recipes, check the Suggested Reading section of this book or your local library for reference guides to American handwriting, outdated abbreviations, and historical acronyms.

Faded Recipes. Here are some archivist tricks to read faded lettering:

• Try looking at the writing under various light sources such as incandescent, fluorescent, and natural daylight. Try both strong and soft light, but also tilt the paper to see if it helps to have shadows fall into any indentations left by the writing instrument.

• A photocopy of the recipe may be more legible than the original. There are several reasons for this. Because the copy process involves light, indentations in the paper may give the letters a slight shadow, or traces of shiny graphite from a pencil may reflect. Also, a black-and-white photocopy machine turns colors to grayscale. Because of the wavelength of light involved with various colors, red-toned inks may photocopy darker than the original and thus be more legible. (As you move down the spectrum, this becomes less successful; pale blue ink may completely disappear in a photocopy.) Don’t forget to adjust the light/dark and contrast settings on the copier to see if this helps.

More from Preserving Family Recipes:
Re-creating a Remembered Dish
General Tips for Recipe Projects
Guide to Older Food Measurements
Collecting Family Recipes: A Group Effort

Excerpted fromPreserving Family Recipes, by Valerie J. Frey. Used with permission from University of Georgia Press, © 2015.