The Hand-Me Down Cookbook
Updated: Feb 18, 2021
I have a shelf of books, up high where my children can’t reach them. They are mostly old books, ones that need to be kept out of reach of little hands. Some are copies autographed by the author; most are from the 1950’s; copies of Little House on the Prairie and childrens books that have been passed down from parents and grandparents. There is an edition of Little Women that was given to my grandmother in 1929, so fragile I barely dare to touch it. And there are three published books by my relatives. Kentucky: The Pioneer State of the West, written in 1935, written by my great-grandmother’s uncle. The Preacher Had 10 Kids, a memoir by my great-grandmother, known as Grandnanny to me, and The Hand Me Down Cookbook, co-written by my Grandnanny and my Grandmama Cherry.
These books are long out of print; though I was surprised to find a few copies available on Amazon. The cookbook was passed down to me from my mom when I was twelve, according to the note in the front, and though I’ve thought about trying to cook my way through it, I haven’t yet, though I have noted a few recipes I plan to skip: Rabbit Tobacco Cigarettes, Squirrel Stew, Stuffed Beef Heart, French Fried Brains. Another note, above the one from my mom, is one from my grandmother, on the date of my parents wedding. “For Susan--the first thing David ever cooked is in this book (page 136) and he can still make French Toast! Much happiness!”
My dad wasn’t much of a cook, but he made breakfast in our house. Pancakes, carefully pouring the batter on the griddle in the shape of turtles. Patiently picking the shells out of the eggs I cracked when I was desperate to try the omelettes out Samantha’s American Girl cookbook. Scrambled eggs, sausage and bacon. And French Toast.
I remember standing beside him in the kitchen, a stack of bread on the plate in front of me (the blue willow dishes that my family now eats from each night), a bowl of eggs and milk and cinnamon sitting before me. Carefully I would dip one side of the bread and then the other in the slick mixture, before handing it over to him to get it the perfect shade of golden-brown. His French Toast recipe was simple: eggs and milk, butter and bread. Cinnamon--it’s not in the recipe in the cookbook, but I remember sprinkling it in. He must have added it to his recipe sometime between being a teenager and becoming a father.
He was a simple man; he didn’t need a lot to make him happy. His family, a good book, a road trip, UNC Football. It’s fitting that his French Toast recipe was similar; simple and good.
He passed away five years ago, when my oldest child was just days from turning one. Through my pregnancy and first year of my child’s life, once he’d received the cancer diagnosis, I anticipated all the things he would miss, all the events he wouldn’t be here for, the grandchildren he wouldn’t get a chance to meet. We tried to cram in what we could; a trip to Tweetsie Railroad and a cruise to Alaska. An Easter egg hunt on a picnic blanket in the backyard for a baby that couldn’t even crawl, because I knew it would be the only chance he’d get to watch his grandchild delight in the treasure inside a brightly colored plastic egg. One last round of family photos, when they told us that it was time to call hospice.
In the years since his death, I’ve tried to share pieces of him with my kids. My middle son shares a middle name with the grandfather he never met. My oldest son, the only one he did meet, often asks to listen to Neil Diamond music, because it’s his granddaddy’s favorite. Love of books and love of travel are two things my dad passed down to me that I hope to pass down to my children. And when we make French Toast, I can show them their granddaddy’s recipe in the cookbook that was published by their great-grandmother and great-great-grandmother.
Through this cookbook, I can connect to the stories of relatives long gone, some that I’ve met, some that I’ve only heard stories about, some that I’ve never even heard of. As we cook recipes of those no longer with us, measuring out the same ingredients and following the same steps, we can find a connection; we can create our own stories, woven with the threads of those who went before.
This post was written as part of a blog hop with Exhale—an online community of women pursuing creativity alongside motherhood, led by the writing team behind Coffee + Crumbs. Click here to read the next post in this series "The Story of a Recipe".
Artwork by Phoenix Feathers Calligraphy for Exhale