In 2021, I had the sad task of clearing out my late parents’ house. They were both only children and it soon became apparent that they had become the custodians of their respective family histories. In every drawer, I found something unexpected and illuminating: an eye-witness account of WW1; my great-great-great grandparents’ love-letters (some in French, ooh-la-la!); a tiny-waisted Edwardian mourning outfit.
And then, over the course of several visits, I found three battered-looking old books.
I opened them to find they were the handwritten recipe books of my great-grandmother Harriet (on my mother’s side) and my great-grandmother Mary (known as Maimie) and her mother Althea (on my father’s side). I had never seen them before. As a descendant, I felt unexpectedly emotional. As a lover of food history, I felt giddy. Altogether spanning c.1866 – 1907, they are a treasure trove of both the familiar (tea cakes…strawberry jam…ginger beer) and the unknown (Welcome Guest Pudding or Snow Cheese anyone?)
This blog will see me cooking the recipes in the books, more or less chronologically, taking it in turns between Harriet and Althea and Maimie (there is some overlap between Althea and Maimie’s books, it appears). If it’s a seasonal recipe, such as Christmas Cake, I might come back to it later in the year. If it’s something that sounds downright disgusting and I know will go in the bin, I might just write about it! For unfamiliar dishes and ingredients, I’ll try to find out more about their provenance. No doubt I’ll start a few arguments about regional dishes (did I mention one side lived in Lancashire and the other Yorkshire?…)
Whilst cooking the recipes they left behind, I will also try to find out more about who these women and their families were, and how they lived. I didn’t know any of them; they all died long before I was born. Sadly, I can no longer ask my parents but I can sift through the mountain of family paraphernalia they left behind, as well as online and other available resources.
What I do already know is that these two sides of my family lived very different lives. On my father’s side, the women (Althea and Maimie) were the wives and daughters of clergy and lawyers, with grand houses and servants. On my mother’s side, poverty and tragedy were rife and it was my great-grandmother, Harriet, who was the servant – ironically – to clergy and lawyers, before she was married. So, was the food they cooked so very different, I wonder?
Expect food history and family history. And do get in touch and let me know if any of the recipes mean anything to you – or if you think you’re a long-lost cousin!
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