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”.