By Lenora Dannelke | Photos by Ryan Hulvat | Food Styling by Autumn Jaztrzemski
Food informs the narrative of life, and positive emotional memories are forged at the table. The sight, smell, and taste of favorite dishes, whether trotted out for holiday feasts, backyard barbecues, or birthday bashes, serve as enduring connections to the people who prepared them. Recreating the special recipes used by those family members—whether that designation is by birth or by choice—keeps their stories going.
Leafing through the yellowed pages of a worn, leatherbound ledger book—filled with my grandmother Sylvania’s faded longhand script—renewed my acquaintance with long-departed relatives, from great-grandmother Sabylla to aunts and great aunts, including Sadilla, Alta, and Icy. (Clearly, this clan favored unusual female names.) A collection of friends and neighbors, plus a flock of “church ladies” I recall from childhood, are also represented among the recipes recorded by my “Gremmy.” Their contributions, spanning the years 1920 to 1966, constitute a culinary legacy ripe for the picking.
Born in 1894, Gremmy was a living link to the 19th century. A quilting frame usually dominated her modest dining room, and she introduced me to such yesteryear pastimes as making string figures and hand shadow puppets by candlelight. However, her primary passion was baking. As the mother of eight children, she kept a pie safe— a ventilated cabinet that deters insects and vermin—well stocked with all manner of cakes, breads, pies, pastries, and cookies gleaned from her cooking journal.
Recipe citations also encompass local newspapers (Dutch apies cakes, Reading Times, 1936), magazines (soft molasses cookies, Needlecraft, 1929), and such oddball sources as the The Farmers Bank calendar (chocolate cheese squares, 1954). Pennsylvania Dutch accents abound, with several versions of shoo fly pie and such deep-fried delights as potato crullers and prize-winning fasnachts from the Kutztown Folk Festival. Tucked amid appealing desserts with familiar flavors, such as peach streusel pie and maple Bavarian pudding, are a few surprising tastes. For example, mincemeat—a boozy blend of dried fruit, suet, and beef or venison—provides an unexpected topping on upsidedown cake.
Frustrations in replicating some of the vintage recipes include unspecific measurements of key ingredients (“flour to stiffen”), a dearth of directions—from none at all to a vague “make as usual”—an absence of baking times and temperatures, and indeterminate yield (“recipe of large proportions”). After working through these puzzles in ongoing kitchen experiments, future generations can thank me for supplying the missing data via sticky notes affixed to pages—written out longhand, of course.