The time had finally come for my wife Megan's mom, Sue Whetstone, to move out of the family home, after the passing of her husband Asa two years earlier, and after 50 years in this ranch style place in Sacramento. The family approached this delicately and deliberately—who ever contemplates dismantling the family home?
Part of the emotional freight of this moment was the matter of the stuff, the somber task of sifting through material and furniture and possessions and personal effects. I know from when my brothers and I did this with our parents’ stuff, you have to shift your brain into a cruelly efficient mode of throwing out a lot of things you know had been lovingly curated over so many years. The hard truth is that most of our stuff gets pitched in the end, a truth I have reflected on as I looked around at our own rooms full of prized possessions. The “savable” things are divided up and the rest gets unceremoniously hauled away by the junkman.
During the material reckoning, Meg ended up with binders of her mom’s handwritten recipes, and a set of recipes from Sue’s grandma Lottie on 3x5 inch index cards that were contained in a box made specifically to hold those cards. This was the standard way so-called “homemakers” did it back then. The recipe index card is one of many casualties of digital information. By now, Sue’s recipes were sort of irrelevant in practical terms—they hadn’t been used in some time. But we also understood these are an important part of the family story, especially because she was known as a great cook and entertainer, and because she spawned a family of cooks, a family for whom food remains central.
Months after the move-out, Meg and I happened to pull the recipe books off the shelf and we went through them more closely. Many had this really cool browned historical patina, from aging and from lots of things spilled and splashed on them in the heat of battle. For me, these artifacts are an entry point into another time, an invitation to travel to a forgotten world.
Holding the fragile beautiful pieces of paper you feel the power they have to tell the story of a woman who raised five kids and held the family enterprise together with a largely unsung determination. You think about her sense of care in the handwritten pages, messy with notes in the margins, annotations and updated measurements written over top of the originals. This is a tangible record of a near past that by now lies just out of our reach.
These recipes conjure visions of her scrambling to get a good home cooked dinner on the table on a busy weeknight, and the stress and logistics of hosting a dinner party with an ambitious menu. You get a picture of a woman who measured out the days and years in teaspoons of baking powder, cups of flour, pinches of paprika. Who gives a damn about the pompous histories of kings and queens and all the old bullshit in museums when you are holding these beautiful timepieces in your hands, captivated by mythologies of California in the late 1960s.
There was an especially beautiful patina on a recipe for something called Piccalilli, on a postcard to Lottie Cummings postmarked 1933. I had to look it up. It’s an English type of mustard relish with peppers as the main ingredient. When the English colonized India this was their attempt to copy India's ubiquitous Lime Pickle. Lime Pickle is a pungent, strong, fermented condiment that really is an acquired taste. There are cross references online from Piccalili to Chow Chow, a southern relish that is similar.
Exotic recipes like this went in and out of fad through midcentury America as home cooks explored new worlds of culinary possibility enabled by post war prosperity and expanding supply chains. One imagines dinner parties where interesting trendy dishes were served up, all the aspic and jello mold concoctions of a generation seduced by the promise of space age gadgets and sunken living rooms. The fondues, the fascination with the austere Scandinavian design sensibility, the mod fashions and bright floral prints everywhere. And that one ubiquitous shade of avocado green!
We found the recipe for Porcupine Meatballs, a dish Meg said the kids clamored for, especially Sheila who always requested it on her birthday. It’s a Depression era meal where rice is added to meatballs as an extender, and it all sits in a pan of tomato soup.
When we came across a particularly stained recipe for Sweet & Sour Pork, Meg explained Sue and Asa would host these big, multi-course Chinese dinners, where she would be deep frying egg rolls and crispy won-tons in the garage. We also came across one for Ginger Beef with Vegetables.
In the family lore there is Kulich, a Russian Easter bread that was also made at Christmastime. They are round domed towers of different sizes that when grouped together on a platter and drizzled with white icing give the appearance of a little town in wintertime. Asa and Sheila made these using coffee cans as forms. Do you remember coffee in a can from the supermarket? Before it became a bespoke cult product with a provenance and sustainable origin story?
Old Fashioned Applesauce Cake, Tuna Noodle Casserole, Tortilla Pie, Crispy Tacos, Date Bars, Cabbage Brunch Salad…the list goes on, some I recall eating at Sue’s table, especially her famous Sour Cherry Pie. She could be sweet and kind; she was also known to dispatch a snarky comment, arising out of her definite ideas about propriety and correctness. Sue’s hyper efficiency was a marvel to behold as she’d race around like a ball of nervous energy attending to so many little details. And her mind would race too, resulting in the occasional misspeak, which she would follow with an animated cringe, and stumble over words…and laugh at herself so openly and honestly that everyone else would laugh, and the whole thing would be endearing.
It is no accident that this woman could cook—Susan Darr Whetstone was a Home Ec major. When this fact came up later on there was always a bit of a laugh, acknowledging how that course of study had become an anachronism of traditional gender roles and the patriarchy. I think Home Economics is actually a bit deeper than its diminished reputation. Frugality and practicality are really about living smart so that you can live well. It reaches to a discussion of what “living well” really means.
Sue and my parents and their generation scrimped and saved to raise kids. They did things like add grain extender to ground meat to stretch the food budget. It was called TVP (textured vegetable protein). Frugality was imprinted on them by their parents who lived through the Great Depression. How distant that is from the hyper-consumer times of today with ApplePay and having items in your Amazon shopping cart teleported onto your front porch with the press of a button.
The simple family kitchen of those years has opened up into a whole wide set of new foodways: Cuisine is now elevated in the culture, a big money industry with all the performative entertainments of celebrity chefs and highbrow alchemists; all the politics and discussions around local sourcing and sustainability. The idea of home cooking itself may be an antique idea in the age of Uber Eats and pre-made meals—you wonder how many people still cook from scratch regularly?
Family recipes document everyday histories in this brief time we have before all is plowed under by the years. Who really knows their ancestors from just a few generations previous? I’m clearly over my head in nostalgia and clinging to notions about the sacred realm of the kitchen.
Meg and I put some of Sue’s recipes in frames and hung them around our kitchen, to honor her and because they look cool. They are reminders of when Sue Whetstone was in her kitchen in Rancho Cordova, and there were grandmas and moms in modest kitchens everywhere, working miracles on a budget, making old country heritage foods and exotic new dishes. It is transfixing to watch the confident practiced hands of a good home cook, the motions learned over decades. For me, Sue’s collection of recipe cards celebrates the craft of cooking, and how our moms nourished us with calories and love.
Joan Didion was once asked why she was using the good china for an everyday lunch. And she answered, “Because everyday is all we have.”
—As told by Patty Mahoney
We, the living, are the vessels that house the dead. We shelter them from oblivion and silence by speaking their names. We wear their neckties, their pearls, and their wedding rings. We warm our cold grief inside their sweaters. We spend their money, drive their cars, play their guitars, listen to the music they loved. We are living, breathing receptacles for the vibrations that connect their world with ours. Remembering them is a holy practice.
— Denise Clemen