What my Great-Grandmother Ate

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, we have moved my grandma into an assisted living home which provides three home cooked meals a day for her. Much better than the microwave tv dinners she was making for herself when she was on her own. She used to be a great cook. She and my great grandmother were traditional homemakers and had prepared three sit down meals each day.

While our family sorted through her house, we came across her recipe box plus a large, well used notebook full of recipes. I quickly laid claim to it. And when we also ran across her mom’s recipe box, it felt like I had come across a treasure chest.
After reading Michael Pollen’s In Defense of Food, I’ve been very curious about what my great grandmother cooked for her family of four. Michael advised that when grocery shopping you should think of your grandmother or great-grandmother. If she wouldn’t have recognized the food item, don’t buy it. He argued that because our ancestors kept processed foods out of there diet, they ate healthier. I am here to tell you, after extensively reading through each recipe in this collection, that Michael Pollen did not have my family in mind when writing his book. I’m quite certain that my great-grandmother wouldn’t have recognized his example of GoGurt. But I’m also quite certain that once she had figured out what it was, she would have grabbed a handful of them.

I was surprised to find in those tin boxes that more than half of the cake recipes called for store bought cake mixes. The salads were full of jello and canned fruit. The entrees were mostly all casseroles that called for cream of some sort of soup and Pepperridge Farms dressing. Lots of frozen veggies baked with cream and more cream of mushroom soup. In fact, except for a couple of spinach salad recipes, all the ingredients in all of the recipes were either boxed, frozen or canned. Even the mushrooms were called for as canned.

These were church going Lutheran women from St. Louis, Missouri. Growing up Lutheran myself, I know that I come from a strong casserole heritage. Which is not all bad, who can resist a comforting casserole from time to time? And they were also busy housewives and I’m sure they appreciated the convenience of boxed and canned foods when they could find them.

It’s made me realize that we have come along way with our eating. I’m grateful to have had the experiences I’ve had that have lead me down this path to cleaner eating. I’m grateful for the good fortune to have the garden that we do and a husband who’s so passionate about tending to it. And I’m grateful that I had such caring grandmothers who worked so hard to prepare us such nice meals. And being that my great-grandma lived to the ripe old age of 98 and my grandma is still kicking at 89, I think it won’t hurt to try out a few of their favorite creamy-baked-casserole recipes once in a while.

Also wanted to share that I think I’ve figured out where I got my compulsive list making tendancies:


Filed under Musings, Recipes

15 responses to “What my Great-Grandmother Ate

  1. Wow, this is truly a treasure to come across. It is wonderful that you have it. An interesting find.

  2. I’m lol! I found my (late) grandmother’s recipe box just last year. She was a wonderful cook and she and my grandfather had a large vegetable garden from which they ate and preserved as much as possible. I was so excited to browse through the box and I found exactly the same thing you did. Unbelievable.

  3. What a cool set of stuff to find! When I think about my mom, she always cooked for us. Roast chicken was a staple. But there was also weekly shake n bake, creamed something or other from a can, canned spinach, sloppy joes, tacos.. all with lots of processed food! My grandparents probably did less processed food, but the jello and store cake? Oh yeah.. tons of that.

  4. Pingback: Silence Dogood: What If We Could Eat What We Wanted « Compostings

  5. What a find. I hadn’t thought about it before but my Grandmother always had a jello salad in the fridge and pudding made in little cups from a box. Really I had no idea a cake could be made from anything but a box per her instructions. She was a farmer and a teacher, canned and sewed and loved a good can of cream of mushroom soup in a casserole. Ahhh, the good ole days. Thanks for stirring up the memories and the packaged realities of meals past. And my best to your Grandmother. How lucky you are to still have her.

  6. graceunbound

    I do not think that Michael Pollan grew up in the Midwest, where Jello salads and casseroles made with ‘cream of’ soup have been staples since the day they were invented. (1895 and 1904 respectively) We probably have to go back to great-great grandmother.

    What a treasure to find though! I have one undated recipe in my file that came from my grandmother, and as nearly as I can tell from the paper it is written on (the back of a church newsletter)she copied it down somewhere around 1940.

  7. Perhaps Pollan didn’t count back enough generations. I get that he means “before industrial foods were common”–perhaps before WWI or II-ish? (When did Jello, Campbells’ Soup and cake mix become readily available?)– but for many people, great-grandma was cooking in the 1950’s and already using those things.

  8. What a treasure to find! I don’t have any hand written ones, but I do have several cookbooks that I ‘inherited’ when my husband’s grandparents passed away a few years ago.

  9. sinfonian2

    That’s so cool! My mother prides herself on some of her mother’s recipies. I hope to inherit photocopies of them because my brother’s the amature chef. Of course I would expect to need translations since my grandmother was Polish. hehe

  10. asonomagarden

    Thank you for all the wonderful comments. I’m glad to find that I’m not the only one who came from a strong casserole heritage. I will have to contact my dad’s side of the family to see if any of their recipes still exist. They were Finish and Norweigen immigrant farmers. I bet their recipes were much different.

  11. Wow, how interesting. My grandmother is giving me a lot of her old things, cake decorating and gardening especially, but I don’t think she’ll part with her cookbook just yet.

  12. I had a similar, recipe-recovery success story with my grandmothers traditional recipe book. One of my cousins got the bright idea to sit down with her and delve deep into the far reaches of her brain for every recipe she could remember. The resulting book was professionally copied, bound and distributed to members of our family.

    It’s been a wonderful addition to our family history and heritage. And it’s a great thing to have around for the new additions, especially as our generations get further from our traditional Chicago upbringings and move further into a more global upbringing, with television, consumerism etc.

    I too, however, was very surprised at how unhealthy my grandmother actually cooked. Something about the South (she was raised in 1920s Chicago/surrounding, but lived w/my grandfather in SoIL and eventually the Ozarks in N-Cent AR) though, they love anything deep-fried or casseroled. For an area known for it’s rich farming heritage, people there consume an amazing amount of store-bought food. Returning to California, after 12 years of growing up in AR, has exponentially increased my awareness of what is real food. This state’s farming diversity should serve as a model for other states interested in feeding a healthy population.

  13. cathairsandchocolate

    I am loving this post!

    I turn 30 soon, and I’ve been thinking a lot about the lives of the women before me, and I find myself especially interested in the food they raised and cooked. I’m hoping to redecorate my kitchen in the next year, and I’ve decide to go part vegetable-themed and part “my great-grandmother’s kitchen.”

    Fortunately or unfortunately, I come from a long line of packrats, so I actually have had access to a lot of things like this. When my childless great-aunt died several years ago, I inherited a half dozen large boxes of her recipes and cookbooks, and I’ve only gone through the surface of them. And my grandmother has given me cookbooks from as far back as The Great Depression. Plus, Grandma’s house is full of antique furnishings that have been passed down.

    You know, I think maybe I’ll go visit Grandma while my daughter is in preschool this afternoon…

  14. Fantastic treasure. Your great grandma must have been younger than my grandma. Mine was born in 1885 and was truly pioneer stock. The only thing canned was from a jar in her pantry. Everything was fresh from the butchering to the garden.

    Came to this from reading your May 2009 post.

    • asonomagarden

      My great grandma was born around the same time actually, but she was a city girl. She was taught to sew fancy dresses and go to dinner parties and hold bridge parties, so she was all about convenience in the kitchen. But what a great heritage you come from Maybelline, that sounds more like what my dad’s side was brought up doing.

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