The Grandma Myth

If you type “Grandma’s Recipe” (in quotes) into a Google search, you get 384,000 results. If you search Amazon’s Books for Grandma’s Cookbook you get over 20,000 results. (an aside: if you search Amazon Books for GRANDPA’S Cookbook, you do get some results – but only 6,000.)

Pretty impressive. What is it about grandmothers and cooking that provokes such activity and adoration?

At the risk of offending multiple members of my family, I am going to go out on a limb and say that grandma’s cooking may be way over-rated.

I have a pile of recipe cards which I treasure; they are in my Mom Hill’s handwriting – she’s my paternal grandmother – and I have fixed all of them many times. In fact, her Cinnamon Bread has become somewhat of a Hill family legend…baked religiously before Christmas by multiple family members and gifted to friends in Colorado and Washington and Oregon and California. But other (once favorite) recipes of Mom Hill’s include “5 in One Salad” (canned pineapple, canned mandarin oranges, coconut, marshmallows and sour cream) and “Hamburger Dish” (can of peas, can of tomato soup, browned hamburger, and cooked rice). A recent attempt I made to bake her Whole Wheat Bread resulted in a dense, unappealing loaf. And I haven’t even mentioned Mom Hill’s overly-enthusiastic use of Jello-O Jello and Campbell’s Pork & Beans and Cream of Mushroom Soup, none of which, thankfully, appear in the recipe pictured below.

Here’s one recipe of Mom Hill’s which we all still appreciate, courtesy of my Cousin Janet

I asked our BigLittleMeals friends and family to share with us a favorite recipe from their grandmother. The results were a mixed bag, to put it mildly. One college friend wrote:

My Gram McClain is best remembered for blowing up a pressure cooker full of beets . . . days after my mom had repainted the kitchen.  On holidays, my dad dreaded Gram Carlson’s “bone dry stuffing”, but he soldiered on and gagged it down.

I may not agree with his taste in food, but our bicycling friend Mr. Squarepants (we believe that name to be fictitious) wrote that his Icelandic grandma fixed a “quite tasty” dish consisting mainly of suet and oatmeal and beef liver. Email us if you’d like the recipe. Andy, on the other hand, finds that the mention of liver sausage sparks fond memories – in today’s Andy’s Corner.

When I asked our two teen grandsons which recipe we’ve made for them is their favorite, their immediate and enthusiastic response was their Grandpa Andy’s Little Swedish Pancakes and their Grandpa Andy’s Popovers. So much for Grandma’s cooking. Damn! 🙂

Let’s face it. Grandma’s food isn’t – or wasn’t – necessarily always good or healthy or even edible. But maybe the outpouring of love from grandma – rather than grandma’s food – created a mystique that made her cooking seem more special than it really was.

Or maybe your grandma really did have”nafas” – that Arabic word which translates into something like an “elusive gift that makes food taste better.” But we still can’t replicate her food because she didn’t write down her recipes – or if she did write something, wrote it in “pinch of this” and “pinch of that” terms.

But there are some treasured and do-able Grandma recipes that live on amongst the BigLittleMeals group. What could be more delightful than serving up delicious homemade vanilla ice cream made from your grandmother’s handwritten recipe?

A delicious recipe from Mother Oscamou; fixing it entailed hand-cranking the wooden ice cream maker and chipping ice of an ice block!

Or spice Christmas cookies from your Grandma Kobelt, who definitely had nafas:

How weird is that! Ohioan Grandma Kobelt (my friend’s grandmother) and my Coloradoan Mom Hill have practically identical handwritings and the very same recipe cards.

Or maybe a slice of Grandmother Smith’s Burnt Sugar Cake with Burnt Sugar Icing. Another college friend wrote about how sad she was to have lost the recipe for that cake. Yum! I’m sorry too – it sounds delicious. A google search reveals that Burnt Sugar Cake is a fond food memory for many folks. This old Joy of Cooking recipe may be just what my friend is looking for. May her grandmother’s cake live on!

Great-grandmom’s Ginger Cookies is a recipe given to me by a student years ago – when I was teaching at Scotlandville Magnet H.S. in Baton Rouge. They are delicious.

While it’s pretty clear that Grandma’s dessert recipes transfer to another generation better than anything else, there are exceptions, and that’s what we’ve got for you today. Our San Francisco friend Aggie published a book about her mother – and her grandmother, Livia Leopold. The book is entitled Burning Horses, A Hungarian Life Turned Upside Down. Aggie calls her grandmother a “gutsy old broad.”

Aggie shared this Hungarian Gulyás (goulash) recipe, which mirrors her grandmother’s.

After fondly remembering our grandmas and their mixed-bag of recipes, I suggest we give a toast – “TO ALL OF THE WORLD’S GUTSY OLD BROADS!” – whether good cooks or not.

Gulyás (Hungarian Goulash)

Gulyás (Hungarian Goulash)

You can omit the potatoes and instead serve the stew over egg noodles, and it will still be something a Hungarian grandma would approve of. Adapted from The Hungarian Cookbook by Susan Derecskey.

  • 4 slices bacon, diced
  • 1 1/2 c chopped onion (about 3 medium sized onions)
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 1/2 lb boneless beef chuck roast, cut into 1 1/2″ cubes
  • 1 T (or a little more) Hungarian paprika (not Hot Paprika, unless you’re into hot)
  • 1 1/2 tsp Diamond kosher salt
  • 1/4 tsp pepper
  • 1 tsp marjoram
  • 1/4 c chopped green bell pepper
  • 2 apples, peeled, cored, and chopped (optional)
  • 2 c beef or chicken broth
  • 3/4 c dry white wine
  • 1 lb medium Yukon gold potatoes, left unpeeled, quartered (you want about 2″ chunks)
  • 4 carrots, peeled and thinly sliced
  • a dab of sour cream for topping (optional)

Over medium heat, brown the diced bacon in a Dutch oven or heavy 3 qt pan with a lid.  Stir and turn until the bacon is lightly browned.  Remove the bacon with a slotted spoon and set aside.

Add the chopped onion to the bacon fat and cook and stir until almost tender, then remove it with a slotted spoon and set aside (you can put it in with the fried bacon).

Add the beef to the bacon fat and slowly brown on all sides, stirring occasionally.  

Combine the paprika, salt, pepper, and marjoram, then add that mixture, along with the green bell pepper and apples (if you’re using them) to the beef in the Dutch oven and mix well.  Pour in the broth and white wine, and bring to a boil.  Reduce the heat, cover, and simmer for about 1 1/2 -2 hours or until the meat is almost tender when pierced with a fork.  Add the potatoes, cover, and cook until the potatoes are almost tender, about another 15 minutes, then add the thinly-sliced carrots, cover, and cook until they are tender – another 5 minutes or so.  Your total cooking time will be in the range of 2-2 1/2 hours.

Recipe brought to you by Aggie in SF and and Andy and Ann.


  1. Pat McClain Thomas says:

    In my recipe file box, I have several heritage recipes written on those little cards with the same picture of the stove. They must have been the “in” thing!


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