Years ago, I acquired a handwritten cookbook compiled by a woman I never met and knew little about; but I knew her, I knew what she liked to cook and how she loved to entertain. I could tell you by the pages with the most stains and occasionally, an indication of scorched pages that may have gotten too close to the stove, which recipes were her favorites.

In the 1970s, while visiting a bookstore in Hollywood, the store owner said “I have a cookbook you may be interested in” and he brought out an old leather 3-ring binder measuring 5 ½ x 8 ½”. It was my introduction to what might loosely be referred to as a manuscript cookbook and I was hooked. I learned a lot about its creator by carefully reading through all the handwritten recipes and examining cards, newspaper clippings and other scraps of paper kept in a pocket on the inside of the cover. I knew that her name was Helen.

Manuscript cookbooks sometimes date back centuries (one of the earliest known manuscript cookbooks was written in 1390 and was compiled by one of the chefs who served England’s Richard II) while early southern plantation hostesses jealously guarded their treasured handwritten “receipts”. Martha Washington’s handwritten cookbook is another famous example of a manuscript cookbook that has survived generations of descendants and is now in the archives at Mount Vernon. Thomas Jefferson also kept a recipe journal that remained in his family and was finally reproduced some years ago. Possibly the world’s most famous manuscript cookbook was kept by Queen Victoria for over 50 years.

I first wrote about Helen’s Cookbook in the Sept/Oct 2007 issue of iNKY Trail News (a newsletter for seniors and penpalers) and don’t want to repeat all that, except to note that my speculation, that Helen never had children (why else would this treasure end up in a dusty little bookstore?) was confirmed recently in a most unexpected way, by another ITN columnist.

A few years after writing the original story about Helen’s Cookbook, Anna Brooker (who writes “Sincerely Yours”for Inky Trail News) and I began penpalling…both emails and snail mail. Our friendship began when Anna sent me a small manuscript cookbook she had acquired in England, where she lives with her husband and son. The handwritten cookbook arrived one day in March accompanied by a charming letter.

Manuscript cookbooks (and cookbooks in general) occupied a portion of our correspondence and in one of my letters, I told Anna what little I DID know about Helen. I had a full name and address because a recipe had been written on a sheet of printed stationery. I knew that her husband’s name was Mart – because Helen was thrifty and often copied recipes onto the backs of envelopes or old greeting cards–sources that provided clues to who she was and how she lived. Gradually, it appears that Helen’s vision began to fail her. Her handwriting became scrawled and almost illegible. Judging from a message inside an old card, I thought her husband died first.

Then Anna turned my perspective of Helen upside down, writing the following “I had a rare moment of quiet this morning while my husband and son were doing some clearing so I thought I would do a little research on your Helen C*. I have a genealogy buddy who is also a distant cousin and she allowed me to use her access to some databases and I found a few things out for you. I must say, I think Helen is even more interesting now. Here is a brief history of Helen for you. You will notice that there are one or two minor discrepancies in the data but that is typical. The gist of the information jives beautifully.

Helen May U. was born on July 5, 1888, in Pottawatomie County, Kansas. She was the daughter of Charles U. born about 1856 in Wisconsin and died January 19, 1929 in Chicago, Cook County, Illinois, and Emma S. who was born July 12, 1865 in Minnesota. Charles and Emma were married in October of 1887.

Helen had a younger sister, Lois, born July 5, 1907 who died before 1910, so Helen was basically an only child. Her father was a physician and surgeon in Chicago and Helen followed in his footsteps in the medical field and later became a psychologist. On February 5, 1921, Helen married Mart C. As she married later in life, there were no children born to her and Mart. Helen lived with her folks and later, when she married, she still resided with her widowed mother, Emma, in Chicago, Illinois.

Helen seems to have taken to using the middle initial of “U” at some point in place of her given middle name of May, probably as an abbreviation of her maiden name.

Sometime after 1930, Helen and Mart moved to California and that is where they lived out their lives, residing at 548 East Valna Drive in Los Angeles. Helen died on January 20, 1971 in Los Angeles California, and as you know, Mart preceded her in death. He died on November 14, 1956…”.

*I have deleted the last names of these people, who, although deceased, are entitled to their privacy. Perhaps there is no one left who cares, but I have grown protective of the author of my first manuscript cookbook. Over the years I have acquired other handwritten cookbooks which are sometimes not strictly handwritten – but contain recipes clipped from magazines and newspapers, and pasted on the pages. And because of Helen’s cookbook I began compiling my own manuscript cookbooks.

I like to think that Helen’s spirit led me to her cookbook–and I know that it has influenced me enormously and led me to a passion for not just cookbooks, but especially manuscript cookbooks. So, thank you Helen…and thank you Anna for solving a thirty-something mystery about the author of “Helen’s Cookbook”.



  1. Fascinating report on manuscript cookbooks — I never knew any of this background. And what a lovely tribute to Helen! Thank you.

    • Thank you for writing, Judy. Handwritten cookbooks, such as Helen’s, are a love of mine. This one remains my favorite to this day. I think Helen would have been pleased that her handwritten cookbook ended up in my possession. – Sandy

  2. How nice you were able to find out so much history behind Helen and her cookbook. I have a VERY SMALL handwritten cookbook that was my mother’s. but it included some recipes she got from her mother and her mother-in-law. I remember my mother making many of these recipes when I was growing up, especially the various pickles, chili sauce, etc. It also has a recipe for “Seed Buns” which is from my paternal grandmother – she was British – and they were more like a biscuit with caraway seeds. We had them often – as well as her Canadian War cake. On my maternal grandmother’s side was a recipe for abelskewer (which is probably not spelled correctly) – something like a pancake but cooked in the shape of a ball. We rolled them in granulated sugar and considered them a late evening snack. I have my grandmother’s original abelskewer pan that she brought with her from Denmark..

    • Hi, Marge – what wouldnt I give to see your family cookbook! Several of my very small handwritten cookbooks are falling apart and were written in a small steno type notebook, but the SMALL ones. They’re falling apart and I dont know how to save them. Will you write out your Canadian War Cake recipe so I can compare it with a couple of War Cake recipes that I have? Thanks, Sandy

  3. It was so interesting to read the history behind Helen’s cookbook.

  4. Hi Sandra, that first manuscript cookbook is always the most cherished, isn’t it? It was my pleasure to help unlock the mystery of Helen. I still like looking over Fanny’s cookbook, my first manuscript cookbook. One day I hope to transcribe the entire book. I think these are the best kind of cooking reference because they not only preserve the tastes of the time but the methods too. More and more I find I reach for the “tried and true” recipes rather that just those compiled in a store-bought cookbook.

    • I had a message typed Anna & lost it through some glitch. Was trying to say how much my own personally written cookbooks mean to me–one year a girlfriend gave me one of those blank books (I’m writing my own cookbook” and I filled it – handwritten – with all of my favorite recipes. But Helen’s will always be #1 and I am forever in your debt for unraveling the mystery of who Helen was.

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