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Kitchen Histories: Typewritten Recipe Cards

Oct 18, 2012

by Sarah Lohman

Etsy.com handmade and vintage goods

Sarah Lohman is a historic gastronomist. She recreates historic recipes as a way to make a personal connection with the past, as well as to inspire her contemporary cooking. You can follow her adventures on her blog, Four Pounds Flour. In this series, Lohman will comb Etsy for items that speak to America’s culinary past.

I worry I’m not leaving a legacy. I don’t have a handwritten, leather-bound recipe book — the kind I often unearth in archives, carefully written a century ago to pass down family dishes from mother to daughter. I don’t even have a box of recipe index cards, carefully typed and organized. All I have is a pile of pages torn from magazines, a folder of web links, and a Pinterest board. Without the permanence of pen and ink, will my digitized recipes be swept away?

These thoughts came to me as I sat with someone else’s kitchen legacy — a pile of typed index cards from the 1960s, bought as a lot from Etsy. I thumbed through the carefully curated recipes, yellowed with age, all selected and copied from the “Kitchen Klatter” radio show.

Kitchen Klatter was the longest running food show in radio history. It launched in Iowa in 1926, and remained on the air nearly 60 years, broadcasting daily in six Midwestern states. A family dynasty, it was consecutively hosted by Leanna Driftmier, her daughter and granddaughter. Those who remember it described it as a farmwife’s companion — a chatty half hour show about life, family, gardening, and cooking. The host and her guests would slowly go over the directions for one recipe or another, giving the listener time to jot it all down.

The recipe cards in my collection have little notes like, “This was recommended as especially delicious!” and feature titles like “Thrift Special” and “Busy Day Hot Dish.” The ’60s get a lot of criticism for the overuse of convenience food; housewives allegedly opened cans and boxes for dinner instead of preparing meals from fresh meat and vegetables. As I flipped through the cards, I did see some canned food-based main dishes, but I also found many simple recipes with simple ingredients that could be quickly assembled for a hearty meal — exactly the goal of a ‘60s working mom with places to be!

A recipe for creamed cabbage.

The first recipe that caught my eye was “Creamed Cabbage.” I know — not a recipe that generally leaps off the page. But I had half a roasted cabbage languishing in the refrigerator, and drowning it in heavy cream seemed to be just the thing. It was: the fat of the cream helped me appreciated the taste of the cabbage, which was meltingly soft after simmering with butter.

“Scottish” potatoes.

The next recipe I tried was “Scottish Potatoes.” I am a quarter Scottish, and saw very little about this recipe that spoke to my ancestral homeland. But I did notice that it called for ingredients I had lying around: potatoes, onions, and rendered chicken fat. This decadent ingredient is otherwise known as schmaltz, and it’s the bright yellow fat you skim off the top of chicken soup.

The tasty result.

I melted a quarter cup of chicken fat in a cast iron skillet (bacon grease would be equally good here), and layered thin cut potatoes and onions with salt, pepper, and dried parsley in the pan, simmering them with beef bouillon. At first bite, the mouthfeel was a little slimy, but then the chicken-soup comfort of fat and salt and carbs washed over me, fortifying me against the cold fall weather. This would be an amazing Thanksgiving side dish.

Made brave after two recipe successes, I was ready for a real adventure, something classically 1960s: Hamburger Chow Mein Casserole.

A mid century classic.

Chow Mein and its forebear Chop Suey were invented in America, although they had Cantonese ancestors. The organ meats in the original recipes were gradually replaced by chicken and beef, and the garlic and soy was gradually toned down and sometimes replaced entirely by a dash of Worcestershire sauce.

This recipe took Chow Mein to a whole new level, relying on ground beef and canned chicken noodle and cream of mushroom soups. As I sautéed the beef, onions, and celery, I was delighted by the bright colors sizzling away in my pan. But as I dumped the soup over top, the mixture turned an unnerving gray. Frankly, it reminded me of sludge — a cheap-as-dirt poverty food invented by food writer MFK Fisher.

After thirty minutes in the oven, the Chow Mein looked appalling and tasted only slightly better: salty and gummy. My fiancé burst through the front door as the casserole came out of the oven. “It smells like my grandmother’s!” he declared, and dug into it with relish.

Salty, gummy and delicious to some.

The woman who typed these note cards used them as a way to organize her recipe headspace. She always had her favorite frozen fruit salad at her fingertips. I do the same thing when I blog about recipes, sharing my successes and failures with an audience who celebrates and commiserates.  My individual recipes become part of the vast collection of recipes online, which is as a whole is more prolific and memorable than any one recipe book could ever be. While not as intimate as a handwritten cookbook, it’s a legacy with infinite reach.

Do you write your recipes down?

64 comments

  • ThePolkadotMagpie

    Polkadot Magpie from ThePolkadotMagpie said 5 years ago

    What a wonderful blog. I too have many handwritten recipes I have gotten from other great cooks. My adults kids just asked me to compile a book of their favorites to carry on our family traditions.

  • MegansMenagerie

    Megan from MegansMenagerie said 5 years ago

    Yes! I love handwritten recipes. I have a bunch from my grandmother and it always makes me smile when I look at them because they are in her handwriting. I have a few others now from my husbands side of the family and I love how going through my book I can easily pick out which one I am looking for just based off the handwriting :)

  • anneofavonlea

    Hannah NeCamp from anneofavonlea said 5 years ago

    Love this post! I just love handwritten recipes from women who have taught me and loved me. It's not just a recipe card; it's a memory too. :)

  • SIKIU

    Sikiu Perez from Sikiu said 5 years ago

    Oh my gosh you are so right! What legacy am I leaving? I now have a paperless office and everything that comes to my hands gets scanned. Hmmm Thank you for the inspiration. I'll definitely work on something special for my kids to carry on through generations.

  • SuzisPillowStudio

    Suzi from ThePillowStudioShop said 5 years ago

    I don't write down recipes. But, that may be because I spent very little time cooking-- until this year. But, now that I have made the effort to cook more often, I am really enjoying it! Maybe a handwritten recipe book for my children is in my (far away) future. Thanks for the inspiration!

  • hoarderrehab

    Kennedy Miranda from HoarderRehab said 5 years ago

    Thank you for this nostalgic recipe article! When I am dehoarding and I come across one of my relatives handwritten recipes, it brings a flood of memories! Some with yum yum food aroma! in the 70s, my mom typed up a book of recipes on cards like the last one. Many from family members, friends and my brother's volleyball team moms and dads for one of the team"s fundraisers. Some of my friends tell me they are still using that collection! To make organizing my hoard more fun and motivating, I've been on a sort of treasure hunt to find my Grandmother's handwritten seafood soup recipe. What a flood of memories that one will bring and so delish too! I want to some how use it in my Christmas cards to family members this year, so they can relive some old fashioned memories at her dinner table! Again, thank you for the article! It's nice to know there are others who collect handwritten and typed recipes from the past with such appreciation!

  • lauraprilltoo

    Laura Prill from lauraprilltoo said 5 years ago

    My advice is to collect as many recipes as you can from your relatives and friends that are living. Time flies by. Even photocopies will become a prized collection. I've also scanned many of these to keep a digital record. The original recipe- hand or type written on a yellowed index card- is a treasure beyond worth. Especially if that cookie recipe has some butter stains on it! Lovely post!

  • secretalice

    tera from secretalice said 5 years ago

    I have a ton of recipe books from various aunts and some have handwritten cards, plus several I got from my mom. Not having children, maybe someday I pass them on here on Etsy. My mom's peanut butter cookies are THE. BEST. :) Lovely article. Thanks.

  • ReleafPaper

    Heather from ReleafPaper said 5 years ago

    I absolutely am doing this for my daughter. My mother started a book that I plan on continuing over time to give to her on her wedding day. LOVE this article so much. Thank you!

  • birdie1

    Laurie from BirdinHandVTG said 5 years ago

    I have so many of these packed away in my basement - thank you for the reminder! I'm certain that there are some treasures among them :)

  • OurBrand

    Katy and Kyle from OurBrand said 5 years ago

    I love this because I was just given a beautiful blank recipe book from anthropology for my birthday and can't wait to write in it! I love to cook and I especially love to cook with friends so I can pass recipes along to them. Great post!!

  • MrsGingerandWasabi

    Marta DQ from tribomo said 5 years ago

    Lovely post! When I left my parent's home my mom gave a notebook with her best recipes! That was a great gift! I have recipes all over, I created a folder on my computer and I try to write them in a notebook, but it's difficult to keep up!

  • foundling

    Betsy Carr from foundling said 5 years ago

    These are wonderful! I have a few old typewritten recipe cards, myself. A few of mine even have authentic vintage recipe splatters, which makes me think they must be especially good. A few years ago mother gifted me a set of our favorite family recipes in her own hand along with a few of my grandmothers. Those cards are one of the best gifts I've ever received. I love them so much.

  • messinabella

    messinabella from BandBEstate said 5 years ago

    great post!

  • knitfitt

    Cate Fitt said 5 years ago

    Thank you for this post which sent me down Memory Lane. My mother copied her own recipe book into one for me. It has recipes given to her by both my grandmothers, by various neighbors, and by my southern godmother. It also has recipes for home made paste & modelling clay. I love to look at them, all printed in her tidy writing, and to read her editorial comments. I continued to add other recipes over the years. These days, I tend to rip recipes out of magazines or print them off the internet and then slip them into plastic protector sheets.

  • jodieflowers

    jodieflowers from jodieflowers said 5 years ago

    Love it!

  • amusebeads

    amusebeads from amusebeads said 5 years ago

    One of the best things I was given when I left for college was a blank "My Recipes" book. My mom had written in a few of her best dishes, but the majority were left blank for me. Twenty years later it is become filled with what I consider the "best of the best" recipes that I try, including a few from my husband's family. Hopefully one day it will be handed down to one of my girls.

  • MaidenVoyageClothing

    MaidenVoyageClothing from MaidenVoyageClothing said 5 years ago

    Awesome post! Made me immediately think of my grandparents! Actually, even though handwritten recipe cards *are* more nostalgic, when I ask my grandmother (who lives far away) for a recipe, she will jot it down and make my grandfather type it out and email it to me. They are both pushing 80, and I think it's so cool that they work together in order for me to be able to keep up family traditions. :) Thanks again for the great post!

  • ClassicMemories

    ClassicMemories from ClassicMemories said 5 years ago

    I have lots of recipes that are from my mother and my grandmother in a recipe box in my kitchen. It is overstuffed now for sure. Makes me nostalgic.

  • ThreeBarDGifts

    Monica from ThreeBarDGifts said 5 years ago

    Lovely story! I'm impressed that you tried these and posted the pictures for us! I have handwritten many recipes but tend to photocopy them or tear them out of magazines these days. I hope to give each of my three girls a set of family favorites some day.

  • design365

    design365 from design365 said 5 years ago

    Great post! I have a versatile recipe template in shop. It can be used for typing in on computer, or handwriting in or pasting clippings on. https://www.etsy.com/listing/69527447/007-make-this-please Check it out @design365.etsy.com

  • stonebridgeworks

    stonebridgeworks from stonebridgeworks said 5 years ago

    Wait! You have rendered chicken fat lying around lol? I love recipe ephemera. Recently we found my grandmother's recipe card for a date-filled bar cookie called "Matrimonial Chews." Did it get this name because dates lead to matrimony? We'll never know but they're quite delicious.

  • cberez

    CB DESIGN'S from CBDesignsPR said 5 years ago

    very good post, I like it!

  • JulieMeyer

    Julie Meyer from JulieMeyer said 5 years ago

    Love this, especially since I just made Ketchup Pork Chops for dinner - total 60's recipe.

  • brooksbarrow

    brooks barrow from brooksbarrow said 5 years ago

    Fun read - thanks!

  • PoleStar

    Jennifer Juniper from PoleStar said 5 years ago

    I do have a recipe card holder with some near and dear recipes. Mostly for things like roasts and yorkshire puddings. They are like paging through a personal food diary when you inherit them.

  • bythewayside

    bythewayside from bythewayside said 5 years ago

    I remember listening to Kitchen Klatter when we visited my grandparents in Iowa. My grandmother got the Kitchen Klatter magazine, chock full of recipes, and I believe my mom has their cookbook - sure to be mine or my daughter's some day :)

  • katherinedugas

    Katherine Dugas said 5 years ago

    I have a recipe book in the works, but a rough copy. I do have a Moleskine recipe book but I'm terrified to write in it and mess up the lovely pages, so for now I'm just using a cheap journal. I like to take a base recipe from online or from magazines and then experiment with it, so pages are often very scribbled. I love searching out different versions of the same recipe and making it my own, but of course I have favourite recipes I grew up with too that I just don't mess with!

  • PopLoveCouture

    Shai Wallach from PopLoveCouture said 5 years ago

    Mmm, those do look like tasty recipes. Those typewritten cards look so much tidier than ours ... all of our recipes are on these flimsy handwritten pieces of recycled paper. Most of them have old printouts on the back! Looks like it might be time for us to upgrade to the typewriter too...

  • reflectionsjewelry

    Emily Delfin from reflectionsjewelry said 5 years ago

    I occasionally will write favorite recipes down, just so I don't have such a horrendous mess in my cupboard - but like you, most of my recipes are torn out magazine pages, and stuff online. How unfortunate.

  • bidadash

    emily willard from EmaBeesArt said 5 years ago

    my friend and I started cooking together in high school and we started experiment, taking turns making dinner at each other's houses and inviting the other's family over for dinner. we ended up making a scrap-cook book that I still cherish to this day. Now my scrap-cook book binder is chock full of handwritten recipes on not paper stuffed into the pocket, printouts from the internet, and pages from magazines. many of them have notes of my own substitutions and additions. mostly all of the pages have some kind of dried up crust, a splash from a recipe in the making. I look forward to organizing it one day and cleaning it up, but then maybe part of the fun is sifting through the mix-matched pages, and seeing the dried drips on the pages....

  • WhisperingOak

    Quality Handmade Items from WhisperingOak said 5 years ago

    I have my mother's typed recipes assembled in an old binder. The recipes are decorated with magazines clippings. I have been asked to retype an clean it up a little but I refused to. I love the yellow pages, the splashes, and the handwritten corrections "missed one step here: fry before putting in the oven" Oh wrong measurement "a pinch of salt" This binder is so treasured it is not in the kitchen it is safe in the office.

  • Iammie

    iammie from iammie said 5 years ago

    Love this post!

  • rosecurry

    Rose Curry from BlueBayCrochet said 5 years ago

    I have collected enough recipes from yard sales and thrift stores that I could try a new recipe every night for atleast a few years. I take care to store them nicely in folders & binders, but for some reason I don't put the same effort into preserving my own recipes. This is a "to-do" someday project that has just not materialized yet.

  • mflueders

    Martha and Nikki Rule from VintageHomeRevival said 5 years ago

    I never do this but I absolutely loved this post. And I found a collection of recipes/clippings not long ago at an estate sale that was incredible. http://overnightdelight.blogspot.com/2012/08/the-original-pins.html

  • DanielHensley

    Daniel Hensley from HoundsofApollo said 5 years ago

    Hilarious! I've always felt shame in the pleasure I take in hand-writing index cards with my favorite recipes on them. So much of what I cook is selfishly filed away in my brain... How can I leave a legacy for my children without writing them down? Love this idea! The type font is so classic!

  • felixthefetus

    Bethani J said 5 years ago

    My grandmother put together a recipe book for me for Christmas and got my mom and my great aunt to contribute some of their favorite recipes. I try to add a few of my own each year and the one's my sister emails me. I really like having both the physical copy and the electronic copy.

  • ovgilliesdesigns

    Olga from OVGilliesDesigns said 5 years ago

    Mine are just scribbles, on bits of paper, all over the place ... really love the typewritten cards idea & I do have a typewriter, so maybe one day :)

  • mattyhandmadecrafts

    Matejka Max from NattyMatty said 5 years ago

    Wonderful!

  • LittleWrenPottery

    Victoria Baker from LittleWrenPottery said 5 years ago

    I was wondering what made scottish potatoes scottish! I tend to scribble down good recipes that I feel are worth repeating over again in a notebook I have. Those that don't pass the 'second make' stage dont make it in sadly!

  • cottonbirddesigns

    Angela Cotton from CottonBirdDesigns said 5 years ago

    Great post!

  • minusOne

    Jen Wofford from minusOne said 5 years ago

    love that even after reading the words "slimy mouthfeel" those scottish potatoes still look good.

  • DressyDollsCompany

    Leila from DressyDollsCompany said 5 years ago

    I can't help but wonder.......with so much of our lives saved on computers these days, perhaps anything we "print" out today will be tomorrow's treasures. Thank you for the post. Loved it!

  • jarofsalt

    Jar Of Salt from JarOfSalt said 5 years ago

    Great read! I inherited a box of recipe cards from my grandaunt, some of them written on by-the-day calendar notebook sheets dated 1963. When you pull out the fruitcake recipe card, one can get a whiff of brandy and cinnamon. :)

  • grahamsgoods

    joyce graham from grahamsgoods said 5 years ago

    i have two large binders full of collected recipes that i have been working on for 20 years. i have spent countless hours adding, removing, reading, and cooking with these books as my guide. i would be lost without them.

  • FranceGallery

    France Gallery from FranceGallery said 5 years ago

    Yum! These old recipes look great.

  • localevintage

    localevintage from localevintage said 5 years ago

    I do write my down! Especially the ones I get from my mother. However, I just keep them in a file folder. If I had the time I would put them on cute cards. Being organized makes it a lot easier to find the recipes when you need them. It always takes me to long to find them when I need them!

  • UnaOdd

    Lynn Lunger from UnaOdd said 5 years ago

    The handwriting is so classic to that generation! I felt like I was looking at one of my grandmother's recipe cards! I love the quirks of recipes from that era that call for odd measurements like 'teacup of flour' and 'moderate oven'. I unfortunately don't write down recipes anymore. I print them from websites and add notations on the side - I may rethink that. I do have a lot of my mom's and grandmother's, neatly written on cards and I treasure them!

  • JoyceAlice2

    JoyceAlice from JoyceAlice2 said 5 years ago

    I guess my memory is not so good --- even when it's a recipe I use all the time I will wonder if it's 1 or 2 tsp? ----- I write down my recipes in a ringbinder. I have recipes I've gotten from my sister, my mother, my mother-in-law, etc, but I have re-written them in a way that makes sense to me. Never thought to keep the originals, although I do have a large index box full of my mother-in-law's recipes (which I've never had time to go through). And I'm a very sentimental person, too! Maybe because my mother was not much of a cook.... she preferred being in the studio to being in the kitchen! But I DO have my grandparents courtship letters published on my blog... (they courted almost entirely through letters, meeting only once before they married in1914). That is a legacy I am handing down to my nieces :) plus i'll give them my ringbinder too :) Really enjoyed your post

  • magsbeadscreation

    Melani Anastasia from magsbeadscreation said 5 years ago

    Awesome post! I was just thinking about this as I kept most recipes in my computer. I should write them down and organize the recipes in recipe book!

  • wehrhouse

    Isabel Wehr from Wehrhouse said 5 years ago

    I just purchased a handwritten ( in inkwell) 1920's recipe book off of ebay. I am fascinated by it! How the recipes differ from our modern day ones. (calling cornmeal "Indian meal"). I have used all the little clues and news clippings inside this book to help me figure out who this 1920's housewife was and where she lived. I can't help but feel connected to her. That is what it means to have something to pass down that has meaning. There is something very personal about it. She is not my distant relative but she might as well have been. I am determined to try and recreate each of Roses' recipes!

  • RegalCottage

    Regina Frydman from RegalCottage said 5 years ago

    My Polish father-in-law introduced me to Schmaltz. I actually never tasted it, but loved to watch him smear it on bread. Good times.

  • fmccalla

    Faith Saunders from KeepsakesByFaith said 5 years ago

    I don't write down recipes but my cousin does. Reading your blog reminds me of her. She loves cooking and trying out new recipes

  • dizhasneatstuff

    deb fearon from dizhasneatstuff said 5 years ago

    I've been compiling a scrap/recipe book for years. I splurged on a large blank art book and have filled it with memories, clippings and both printed and handwritten recipes. It's splattered with butter and mystery ingredients. I hope one of my children treasures it after I'm gone.

  • vintagetogoetsy

    Kennedy Miranda from vintagetogoetsy said 5 years ago

    Thank you for the article about the appreciation of handwritten and typed recipe card collections! Not only do adults appreciate it, but children also! As an ex-third grade teacher, one of their last homework assignments was to bring in their favorite recipe that they could cook themselves. It's a math, chemistry, structured writing assignment all in one! Anyways, I would make a table of contents, xerox, collate it and give one to each as part of their end of the year memory book. Some were so funny, copied write off the back of a ramen packages, etc! If we had time, we'd cook some of them in class or a student could bring it from home for a class taste test! I have some lost in my hoard. Something new to find that I've forgotten. Thank you etsy and Sarah for the reminder and helping me so much with my HoarderRehab!

  • ThePurpleThistles

    Suz from ThePurpleThistles said 5 years ago

    I really wish my family had kept my Gran's recipes...although I think a lot of her recipes she kept in her head! How lovely to look back and see your loved ones handwritten recipes and feel they are a part of your now. I have recipe books from my other Gran and Grandpa and use them often. I love the wee stains of goodness knows what that have stuck the pages together at some point! If you find any from Winnie in Scotland please let me know!

  • ziemart

    Vilija from ziemart said 5 years ago

    Recently, I started to write all the recipes, that I tried in a tiny, nice notebook. It's the big difference from checking the internet for a recipe and reading from your own book. And these pictures really encourages me to continue writing everything what I tried down.

  • shopworndesigns

    shopworndesigns from ShopwornDesigns said 5 years ago

    I love to write on recipe cards. I'll never stop. Great read. I hope to try some of the meals. Thanks for sharing! ShopwornDesigns.

  • whatnotsandsuch

    Nena Crouch from whatnotsandsuch said 5 years ago

    I have hand written recipes from both of my Grandmothers, my Mom, Mother-in-Law, and my husband's Grandmothers. His Grandfather was the baker at the Hotel Woodruff, which sadly does not exist anymore. I have recently unearthed ALL his hand written recipes...what a treasure!! Thank you for sharing such a great article!

  • felixthefetus

    Bethani J said 5 years ago

    My book full of messy index card recipes are my favorite thing to pull from. When I do try recipes from the internet I always make sure to preserve them by writting them down. Check out my blog about it: http://lifeforasong.wordpress.com/2012/10/20/grandmas-cook-book/

  • LaECLECTICa

    LaECLECTICa from Laeclectica said 5 years ago

    Fun article! I love my old yellowed hand written oil and flour covered recipes. I would never dream of re-writing them on fresh new paper-never! : ) Old timey is the way to go: oleo = butter pinch = 1/4 teaspoon handful = 1 cup Thanks for the fun read.

  • QuillandCopper

    Wendy Noll from QuillandCopper said 5 years ago

    Loved your post. Yes, I write down recipes and have taken it one step further. About a year ago I began combining my love for baking and for calligraphy, resulting in calligraphy recipes. I thought it would be a neat way to preserve our favorite recipes, some of which have been handed down. As I continue to do this, I decided to make prints and cards of my originals and just recently opened my Etsy shop. Having favorite recipes handed down is such a gift and means more than we realize. Thanks for writing about it!

  • grandmae1

    Ellen said 5 years ago

    My family knows about my love of cooking AND my strawberry collection... I now have enough file boxes to fill and give to each grandchild! Now to dig out all the old recipes... thank you for getting me moving! (~.~)

  • vintagenelly

    Vintage Nelly from vintagenelly said 5 years ago

    I absolutely loved this post!! When my grandmother passed away, she didn't have much, but the one thing I wanted were her handwritten recipes. I cherish having something she clearly loved and I love seeing her handwriting. I just got a box of old type-written recipes at a local flea market that I was thinking of selling. But after reading this post, I'm going down to the basement and find that recipe box and I am keeping them!!! Thanks so much for all of the memories!!!

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