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Life Happens: Family recipes unite generations

HAMBURG ó The other day, I found my great-grandmotherís cookbook in a box in my basement. I had completely forgotten that, many years ago, my grandma gave me the book, along with her own handmade recipe books handwritten on brown paper.

The cookbook was printed in 1881. It is almost too fragile to open, and the paper is brittle, with the age of an astounding 132 years.

Finding the book got me thinking about the legacy of grandmothers, traditions and family recipes that are handed down through the generations. And it also prompted me to remember both of my grandmothers and their signature styles of cooking.

My grandmothers were as different from each other as apples and oranges. My paternal grandma was born in 1896. She was an intelligent but tough teacher and artist, who grew acres of fruits and vegetables.

Her gardens were all tilled by her own shovel and fueled by her fierce determination and strength. She kept her original hybrid stove, which had gas burners and a wood-burning oven, which she used well into the 1970s.

She feared nothing. She canned and preserved everything. She was never happier than when she was outside, working in her garden.

She could also make a flawless baked Alaska, whipping the egg whites with a hand-powered egg beater and browning the meringue to perfection, in that wood-burning oven.

She once gave me her recipe for Charlotte russe, an impressive dessert that is constructed of, among other things, ladyfingers made from homemade sponge cake. In other words, it is a process, rather than a recipe.

Her standards for us were high, but the twinkle in her blue eyes rewarded us, when we had done well. I loved her to death.

My maternal grandmother was also a tough cookie, but her lap was the best place in the world. She spun a cocoon of domesticity that was warm and nurturing, and a safe harbor in the storm that was my childhood.

She also could cook circles around anyone. She never used a recipe. No one can ever duplicate her banana cream pie, because she never wrote it down. She never even used a measuring cup or spoon. It was all done by eye. Perfect crusts were made by the way the dough felt in her hand.

The stuffing that I make for Thanksgiving every year is my maternal grandmotherís recipe. There are no measurements. Iíve never seen it written down.

And yet, I can duplicate it every year, just like my mother could, when we were growing up. I think it is the best stuffing in the world. I wish there were stuffing contests, so that her stuffing could win.

I do have one recipe from her, however. I insisted on the recipe because it was for the cake that I asked for every year, for my birthday. Itís a simple white cake that I think is the best I ever tasted. We called it ďNannyís cakeĒ after her, of course. I donít know if it ever had another name.

So, at this time of year, when so many of us are baking, itís a time to honor the recipes that have been handed down, from generations past.

This Christmas, I know my sisters and I will make the cookies that my mother always made, and also the ones that my grandmothers made, too.

From my paternal grandmother come pfeffernusse and lebkuchen. From my maternal grandma come big, puffy, sour cream cut-outs, frosted with sprinkles and from my motherís recipes, Iíll make her dainty bon-bon cookies, stuffed with green and red cherries.

There is no time like the holidays to connect with generations past, and thereís no better way to do it than with food.
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