Thursday, June 22, 2006

A Favorite Cookbook

In the May 28th, 2006 Book Review section of The New York Times, Nach Waxman in an article called Save This Cookbook! asked several cookbook authors, writers, and famous television chefs what their favorite out-of-print cookbook was? I love articles like this. By reading their choices you can better understand what makes a person tick. (But then there is always the skeptical side of me, wondering which publicist tried hardist to get their author featured.)

The article did get me thinking about my cookbooks and which I loved the most. I love lots of different authors and my shelves are starting to spill over. When I had my bookshelves built when renovating this house seven years ago, I told myself I would have two shelves dedicated to cookbooks, no more. There are now three cookbook shelves and they are beginning to creep into other parts of the home. Part of this is The Farmer’s fault – he keeps giving me more. But part of it is mine, I keep acquiring.

When I think about which are my ultimate current favorites, here’s what I come up with:
• My signed copies of Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking (Volumes One and Two), Baking with Julia (also signed) and The Way to Cook (signed too!!) (Thanks Pat Chew!)

• Patricia Wells’ Bistro Cooking, The Provence Cookbook, Trattoria, The Paris Cookbook. Patricia Wells is the food writer for The International Herald Tribune in Europe. She isn’t appreciated enough by we Americans. Her common sense approach and interesting recipes are wonderful and have been the centerpiece of many a dinner party and picnic here at our farmhouse.

But I think my dearest cookbook is called “Gram’s Cookbook." My paternal grandmother, Frieda Roessler Nicholas, was a big part of our lives when my sisters and I were growing up in Dover, NJ. When we were little, she was the chief babysitter and as we grew up, we spent more and more time with her at her house. Gram was a great cook and baker as well as a stitcher and a gardener. We often went to her home for a giant Sunday dinner complete with multiple desserts. She baked Christmas cookies for gifts and helped cook at our local church suppers. Her job for over twenty-five years was as the Head Cook at the North Dover Elementary School where she fed lots of children and teachers very well.

One year, when I came back from college, I decided I wanted to document my grandmother’s heritage. I proposed the idea to her that she write a cookbook for her grandkids. She thought I was crazy but ultimately, I think she was flattered. I spent an entire day at her house, interviewing her on a portable tape recorder while she baked her famous Christmas stollen. I took photos of her mixing, kneading and baking, then some portraits on her sunporch. I set her up with a spiral blue-lined notebook and asked her to write down her favorite recipes that she thought we would all like to make in the future.

Gram was eighty-one years old then. She was getting a little frail but she still had spirit and would tell you just what she thought. She was still living in her own home on Conger Street and tending her garden. I would call her from across town frequently to check on her progress. She had beautiful handwriting which to this day, I still marvel over. Slowly, she filled the pages of the little notebook using the felt-tipped Flair pen I gave her. She called me when it was done and I collected the project. I think she was proud and amazed that she had so many great recipes to share. I know she had a very good time compiling it.

Luckily, this project was done in 1982, just before desktop publishing became the norm. The finished book is not very slick, thank goodness. I photocopied all of the handwritten pages at my dad’s office after hours. The blue lines disappeared and all that was left was Gram’s beautiful handwriting. I collected some family photos from her old albums and shoeboxes and photocopied them. Then I wrote a family history. I collated the pages myself and then designed a little cover with type that I pressed onto a page. I had the cardstock covers laminated and then took the whole thing to a local printer to have it spiral bound.

That Christmas, Gram and I gave “our” book to my sisters and my cousins and a few family friends. We had kept it a secret from everyone except my mom. It is one of the best Christmas presents I have ever given. And besides that, I got to spend a whole bunch of time with my wonderful grandmother working on a project that we were both so proud of and learning from her years of life experiences. I’ll never forget that! The recipe here is one of my favorites - a meltingly soft, not too sweet cookie she used to cut into Christmas shapes - bells, stars, hearts - that turns a soft golden brown when baked just right.

That’s the cookbook I would save if my house were on flames.

P.S. It's a great summer project to do with a mother, a grandmother or special friend. You'll learn a lot and always remember working on it with them.


Anonymous said...

Did you know Cream cheese cookies are my favorite cookie. My German grandmother made them too.

Did you know my birthday is in 13 days???


patty bolgiano said...

While not so much a cookbook, but a book on traveling, food and yes a cookbook now that I think of it, there is a writer, MFK Fisher, whom I was introduced to about 15-20 years ago buy my aunt who loves to eat and cook. As I cull my book stash over the years (cook books included) her books always stay, as do the Classic Elite books you did, my graphic design books, and a few others.

When my husband showed me his room for the first time (we were engaged at that point) it was absolutely stunning. The room was like a packrat of books with a little path to the bed! He had to get rid of 2/3 of the books and I had to buy a bookcase just for his books.

It is amazing the family members that traverse our lives, they leave wonderful impressions, history and yes traditions that we still hold today.


Monica said...

What an amazing gift that you've given your family with your grandmother's recipes. My grandmother taught me how to knit so I always think of her when I'm knitting.

My mother-in-law makes cream cheese cookies every year and I her recipe is similar except she doesn't have an egg yolk but the whole egg instead.

Wibbo said...

What a wonderful book! I wish I'd done something similar while my grandmother was still alive.

Anonymous said...

I started following your blog due to the wonderful Jane at Yarnstorm and greatly enjoy it. My favorite cook books are by Laurie Colwin. She writes her recipes in a narrative style and includes wonderful asides about her life in New York City. She wrote a couple of years for Gourmet.

By the way, Bistro Cooking is one of my favorites also.

Pattie in San Francisco

Robin said...

Thank you for sharing this beautiful story. What a treasure you have and wonderful memories of your grandmother.

monica e. said...

I found this post very moving. What a great idea you had, to do this book of your grandmother's recipes. A true labor of love! And the picture of her is just lovely.

P.S. I have been looking at your knitted pillows and wondering whether the stores that carry Julia would also have the kits or instructions for them. I did not see on your website that I can get them directly from you. I would love to make these.

Corinne said...

My Nana made excellent Stollen, and the most delicious German pancakes. My mom has the Stollen recipe written on a card from her, but the pancake recipe was never written down. They were paper-thin, like crepes.

Mrs. Staggs said...

This is a wonderful post. Thank you for sharing both the meaningful idea and your lovely grandmother's recipe. This is my first visit here to your beautiful place and I've enjoyed it very much.

Donna S. said...

Thanks for the memories!! Wonderful! said...

Oh, what a beautiful post about your grandma and her cookbook! I am turning 50 this year and have lost both my dear grandmothers in the last few years. What a wonderful gift I had though to have had both of them for this long in my life. Thanks for your sweet memories you shared. Is the cookbook for sale, by chance? I collect "Grandma" books and items.

Dee said...

I've made cookbooks for very dear friends as gifts and I am compiling recipes for my sons for when they get married.

I am right there with you on collecting cookbooks, I have my favorites that I constantly go to but I love them all and there is always room for one more.

Wanda said...

That's a beautiful story and one that is wonderful. That is awesome that you got to spend time with grandmother in that way and learn her stories. I'm sure everyone in your family was thrilled to receive them.

Anonymous said...

Janet Szabo mentioned your blog. I enjoyed reading the entry about your grandmother's cookbook, as well as the picture of her rolling out the cookies. Are you interested in selling a copy?