This is a rewrite of a previously posted article.

Back in the days when I was raising four sons literally on a shoestring, there was generally not enough money for ANYthing, much less the toys and games the boys would ask Santa to bring. My husband (now ex) was self employed most of those years and his income was unstable and sporadic. I had to make do with what we had in the pantry for meals when sales became non-existent. We had spaghetti so often that my youngest son no longer will eat it at all. I kept large tins filled with dried spaghetti, rice or pinto beans. No one ever went hungry but they all undoubtedly got tired of meatballs and spaghetti and corn bread and beans, made with pinto beans in my mother in law’s West Virginia style.

That was during the years I was a stay at home mom – from 1965, when I quit my job at Weber Aircraft to stay at home, until 1977, when I was offered a dream job by a dear friend. I love that job so much, I was employed by them until I retired the end of 2002. And the best part was, there was always money for groceries after that. The downside, of course, was not being at home all of the time—such as the time my youngest son ran his bicycle into a telephone pole and ended up in the emergency room. But could I have prevented that accident? Probably not. But it wouldn’t have taken as long to get to the hospital.

Well, aside from that – way back when I had only two young sons—and we had a lot of friends and families back in Ohio, I began baking cookies and making candies to give as gifts for Christmas. Gradually, I worked my way up into jellies and jams (at first putting them in baby food jars), then chutneys and preserves and all sorts of other good things to eat—baking pumpkin bread or making fruitcakes. This led to discovering all the great cookbooks devoted to the topic of gifts from your kitchen. One of my favorites—it still is—was a book titled WITH LOVE FROM YOUR KITCHEN BY Diana and Paul von Welanetz, published in 1976. Back when I didn’t have ten thousand cookbooks taking over the house, WITH LOVE FROM YOUR KITCHEN was a frequently thumbed through cookbook and I think this is where I learned that you can make your own sauces, mustards and marinades, pickles, herb blends and some unusual jellies, such as one made from champagne.

Others that I sometimes rely on are “WHAT SHOULD I BRING?” by Alison Boteler, published in 1992—this is a nice spiral bound cookbook with ideas for just about any occasion, not just Christmas—there are ideas for bridal and baby showers, greetings, goodbye and get well gifts, annual events and holiday housewarmers…and a lot more—plus plenty of tips for wrapping things – the latter is my downfall…but my daughter in law, Keara, has me spoiled; she does most of my gift wrapping. Another favorite of mine is GIFTS OF FOOD by Susan Costner, published in 1984. You will go crazy over the recipes—160 delectable recipes and how to wrap them.

I’ll let you in on a little secret – I never noticed, before, how many of the titles in this category start out with “Gifts from –“ so let me give you a quick rundown on a few of them.


GIFTS FROM YOUR KITCHEN, BY Carli Laklan and Frederick-Thomas, published 1955 by M Barrows & Co (a collection of 300 recipes)

GIFTS FROM THE KITCHEN by Norma Myers and Joan Scobey, published in 1973 by Doubleday & Co. (over 200 coveted family recipes)

GIFTS FROM THE PANTRY BY Annette Grimsdale, copyright 1986, published by HP Books (this is one of those oversize as in long but narrow soft covered books. I have been making my pickled watermelon from this cookbook for many years—because it uses the GREEN part as well as white and pink) Lots of other good recipes as well.

GLORIOUS GIFTS FROM YOUR KITCHEN by Lisa Yockelson, copyright 1984 – offers over 200 recipes.

GIFTS FROM THE KITCHEN by Famous Brand Names, copyright 2003—lots of great illustrations—so you will know what it’s supposed to look like when you’re finished,

WOMAN’S DAY GIFTS FROM YOUR KITCHEN, copyright 1976—no photographs but a lot of favorite recipes.

GOURMET GIFTS FROM THE KITCHEN, BY Darcy Williamson, published in 1982

SEASONAL GIFTS FROM THE KITCHEN, BY Emily Crumpacker, William Morrow & Companym 1983 (and oh, my! I bought this at the Book Loft in Columbus Ohio at the German Village…and the reason I know this? The sticker is still inside.
Also – THE GIFT-GIVERS COOKBOOK by Jane Green and Judith Choate, copyright 1971 and published by Simon & Schuster
And one more –

THE JOY OF GIVING HOMEMADE FOOD by Ann Seranne, copyright 1978 and published by David McKay Company. (If the name Ann Seranne sounds familiar – it should; she’s written many cookbooks. I’ll write something about Ann Seranne another time).

Well, this is just a sample of the gift-giving genre of cookbooks I have collected. Now that I have all of these out, I will have to thumb through them again and see what treasures I have forgotten.

Happy Cooking & Happy Cookbook Collecting!


They never fail to fascinate me; sometimes written on 3×5 recipe cards, generally on scraps of paper—many dating back decades. I am reminded of a time when ladies hosted luncheons or teas, to which their friends and neighbors attended, everyone dressed to a T, enjoying coffee or tea, and some of the hostess’ favorite offerings – sandwiches, perhaps, with crusts removed, and often a cake or other sweet treats – most certainly the things her guests would remark about and ask for the recipes.

One of my favorite collections of handwritten recipes are three little ring-bound notebooks in which many of her friends and neighbors’ recipes are written.

I no longer remember exactly where these came from – I think they might have been a gift from Kelly’s godfather, Roger, who knew that I loved such things and sometimes found them in thrift stores like the Salvation Army.

I have written several times about Helen’s Cookbook (please see index) – it was the first completely handwritten cookbook to come to my attention when I was in my twenties and found a used book store in Hollywood. I was buying up cookbooks for a dollar each when the owner brought out this old handwritten cookbook—I had never seen anything like it and had to buy it (I think about Ten or eleven dollars). For DECADES I didn’t know who Helen was—clues could be found inside the book—and it was those clues that led a British penpal who had access to Genealogy to identify my Helen, who, as I expected, never had children—if she had, her cookbook would have never fallen into my hands.

I have in front of me, an old hardcover notebook addressed to GRACE, 1927, from FRANK, 1928 – with a July 1988 post-it from my sister Susanne who knew (doesn’t everyone I know?) that I cherish such things. While Grace’s collection contains man6y handwritten recipes, it also has many very old magazine recipes as well. Unfortunately, most of the handwritten cookbooks in my collection are fragile; consequently, I try not to handle them too often.

Who will want them when I am gone? It’s a selective kind of collection. It was due to Helen’s cookbook that I began my own collection of handwritten (or typewritten) recipes but what started out as one 3-ring binder in 1958 or 59 has grown to more than fifty 3-ring binders; only five of them are cookie recipe collections.

It was in the 1970s when I hosted a lot of parties and tried a lot of new recipes that I started a 3 ring binder for cake recipes. And what started out as one or two recipe boxes filled mostly with cookie and cake recipes, has grown to more than two hundred recipe boxes – Bob and I were in Ventura back in the 1980s when we had the time to spend weekends scouring thrift stores and antique shops—that I found a filled recipe box, priced at $11.00. (it seems to have been the going price for such things back then) I didn’t buy it when we first spotted it – I think we went back twice before I bought it ($11 seemed like a lot at the time).

I know there is a market for filled recipe boxes so I imagine my son and daughter in law will know how to sell those off when I am gone—and I’ve tried to let them know that a lot of my cookbooks are valuable too. I’m hoping that my grandchildren will want some of these things. Maybe some of my nieces and nephews will want some of them too.

I started collecting cookbooks in 1965. There comes a time (I never dreamed it could happen) when collections simply take over. I never thought I’d see the day. There, you heard it straight from the horse’s mouth!

–Sandra Lee Smith


I wrote the following several years ago and posted it on my blog around 2011 or 2012. Bear with me as I go back in time once again to reflect on my favorite hobby and pastime for all of my adult life: Christmas.

It’s July and I have begun thinking about Christmas. Well, to tell the truth, I really start thinking about Christmas in January. This goes back to the late 60s and early 70s when I was raising four little boys and would search for clearance sale items right AFTER Christmas.
There is so much to plan and do for the holidays, but mainly my thoughts center around Christmas presents which are now stored, such as they are, in a spare bedroom. Throughout all the years we lived in Arleta, Christmas presents were stored in a very large built-in hall cupboard that I called (obviously) “The Christmas cupboard”.

Back in the day, I would send a box of books to my pen-pal, Eileen, in Australia. You had to get your overseas packages to the post office by September, so they would reach their destination by December (this was for surface rates. Airmail will get there a lot faster but costs quite a bit more). I used to send at least one box of books to Eileen each year. We loved the same authors, Eileen and I.

But our lives have changed quite a lot; we are now retired as are most of my penpals For years I sent Christmas parcels to all of them, little things picked up here and there along the way—or books. Now, no one can afford to exchange gifts although I still do exchanges with several of my penpals. My penpal Bev and I stopped exchanging Christmas presents but still do gifts for our birthdays which are on the same day.

I save up recipe booklets and inserts from cooking magazines to send to penpal Eve, who also lives in Australia—but there’s no timeframe for that. I just seal the envelope when it’s full. Indeed, all of our lives have changed and hardly anyone can afford to send gifts—not just the gifts but the cost of postage. Isn’t that sad?

I like to send some magazines and maybe a couple of jars of jam to my brother Bill every so often, not necessarily for Christmas. Ditto my brother, Jim. My sister Becky and I exchanged boxes of things throughout the year—often books—not for any particular reason – just because.

And speaking of my brother, Jim, I will always remember that he gave me my first books – five Nancy Drew mysteries – when I was about ten or eleven years old. It was an unforgettable moment in my life. What I discovered, then, was that it was not enough just to read the books: I had to own them, too).

However, all of this being what it is, I still continue to make up batches of jellies and jams, pickles and relishes—and start around in May when fresh strawberries become available in our supermarkets. My friend Bev often brings me some pureed blackberries when she and her husband visit me before heading for Arizona in January, to meet up with other Oregonian snowbirds for the winter. Blackberry is my favorite; not a lot gets given away.
I will still make little loaves of banana bread (and save up ripe bananas, mashed and measured in one cup increments, in the freezer) and I love to make fruitcake—but who is there to give fruitcake to any longer?

I like to make cookies and candy in the fall, to give as Christmas gifts—and last year my grandson, Ethan, became my sous chef in the kitchen as we made some Christmas cookies. He wanted to give Buckeye Balls (a kind of peanut butter candy that is dipped in melted chocolate to look like a buckeye) – those are very popular and well known in Ohio, my hometown, but not so much here. We bought pretty little boxes with plastic openings on the lids, at Michael’s and while I directed in the kitchen, Ethan actually made the buckeye balls and packaged them to give to some of his favorite people. He and his sister, Savannah (who is now 17 and not as preoccupied with cookies anymore) have been making cookies with me since they were very young children, maybe starting out around the age of eight.

I send cookies and candy to the claims department at the office where I worked for 27 years, with the help of an employee who lives in the Antelope Valley and does a delivery for me ever since I moved up here. I also send a jar of jam to friends who are still working there.
A word about cookies – some, like lebkuchen and gingerbread cookies can be made well in advance and allowed to mellow in a tightly closed container. A lot of cookies can be wrapped tight and stored in the freezer until the holiday draws near. Some are too fragile (such as meringue cookies) and shouldn’t be made until right before Christmas.

And I can’t recommend making them at all if you live in a humid State such as Florida. (This is the voice of experience talking—I lived in Florida for 3 years). Meringue cookies do keep pretty well in a dry climate such as the high desert, where I now live. If I am going to glaze or frost cookies, I don’t do that until I take cutout cookies out of the freezer just before Christmas, and then add my finishing touches. Gifts of cookies can be given to the girls at my post office, to my mail carrier, to my mechanic, or other service people who are in my life. Who doesn’t enjoy a box of freshly baked cookies? Last year, Ethan helped me take two large trays of cookies to the nurses at the chemo center where Bob underwent treatment throughout the year.

I have written in the past about the Christmas cookbooks in my collection – but this year, I would like to tell you about just one Christmas cookbook although there are dozens in my cookbook collection. And, since I have also written in the past about my own childhood Christmas memories, I thought it would be nice to share those of other (somewhat more prominent) writers.

“CHRISTMAS MEMORIES WITH RECIPES” is a collection of Christmas memoirs and recipes offered by famous chefs and cookbook authors. It was published by Kitchen Arts & Letters/Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1988. It is available on both Amazon and Alibris, some copies for as little as 25 cents, others – such as Alibris – has copies for 99c. But a word of caution—I found copies of the same book with the author being listed as Evan Jones or Martha Stewart – they are just contributors to the book itself. I will attempt to include a photograph of the book I am referring to. does have some other cookbooks with the very same title but judging from the covers, they’re not the same book.

And goodness knows—there are hundreds of Christmas-themed cookbooks and memoirs as well as dozens, if not hundreds, of cookbooks about cookie making. Before we moved to the desert, a friend came and created a spreadsheet for me on my computer—I logged on all of the Christmas/cookie titles and found I now have over 500 (yikes!) – a far cry from the days when my sons were children and most of my cookie recipes came from Farm Journal cookbooks or recipes I found in December magazines and cut out to put into a 3-ring binder, or cookie recipes exchanged with penpals. When one binder of recipes became too full to hold another sheet of paper I started another cookie binder – and when that was full….well you get the picture. I now have 7 binders for cookies. The oldest one was started in 1958 when I got married.

Included in CHRISTMAS MEMORIES WITH RECIPES are contributions from Bert Greene, Marion Cunningham, Martha Stewart, Maida Heatter, Helen Witty, Irena Chalmers, Julee Rosso, Beatrice Ojakangas, Evan Jones, Edna Lewis, Craig Claiborne, Betty Fussell – and others! And, although there are recipes included with each memoir, the recipes are really secondary to the thoughts and recollections of the various writers.

‘IT’S a lot like getting married,” Irena Chalmers offers. “There has to be a beautiful solemn bride in a long white dress and everyone gasping a she comes down the aisle. And all of us, craning to catch a glimpse of her as thought we had never seen her before. And then a heart-stopping moment when for a terrible second we all fear that he really has forgotten the ring. And then, of course, the best man finds it in his other pocket and the tension makes the relief all the sweeter. And in moments they are safely across the high wire and the vows are all completed and the organ is crashing out the Wedding March and the couple is dancing down the aisle and all the guests break out from orderly rows to greet the bride and groom, and each other, and the party is ready to begin….It’s like that,” she notes, “with Christmas dinner. Once you’ve embarked on it you’ve got to go the whole way: do it up properly with the plumpest turkey that ever there was and the sage and onion dressing and the chipolata sausages and the lumpy mashed potatoes and the gravy and the Brussels sprouts and the gooseberry sauce. And then, when there is not an inch of room left, the lights are turned out and in comes Father carrying the plum pudding borne on the silver platter….”

“Maybe the way to say it,” suggests Evan Jones, “is that Christmases make a mosaic of nostalgia. My memories begin with the year the first ice skates were the parental gifts for my siblings and me, and there is an odd bit of sentiment for the friend whose handmade cradle, much later, was his celebration of my own first child’s inaugural Christmas….”

Edna Lewis recalls Christmas in Freetown, writing, “When I was a girl growing up in a small farming community of Freetown, Virginia, preparations for Christmas started in early September, when we children went out to gather black walnuts, hickory nuts, and hazelnuts….Whenever she saw a break of a day or two from the September harvest, Mother would set about making the fruitcake. It was a family affair that my older sister and I cheerfully participated in….”

Craig Claiborne, writing of distant Christmases, states, “The Christmases that pass most often through my mind are from my early childhood, the most dramatic being when I was about four years old, and in a moment of innocence, set my family’s home ablaze…”

Betty Fussell recalls in brilliant clarity, a Depression Christmas on her grandparents’ farm in Riverside, California, while Jane Grigson writes that one of her earliest memories is of her father singing at Christmas. She says he had a “lovely tenor voice, clear, unaffected, warm, and joyful”. *(Grigson’s memory of her father singing made me think of my mother playing “Silver Bells” on our upright piano—she couldn’t read music and played entirely by ear).

Bert Greene remembers that while he is a Christmas lover, his mother was not. “Her yuletide animus,” writes Greene, “was undoubtedly affected by a traumatic childhood experience. She had been chosen to play Scrooge in a school production of Dickens’s A CHRISTMAS CAROL when she was about ten or twelve, and spent the better part of her lifetime, and my own, sneering, ‘Bah! Humbug!’ whenever the first snows fell. She was also a woman who, for one thing, hated shopping and, for another, hated cooking…”. Bert goes on to explain how the Christmases of his childhood were celebrated – during the Depression, when his family lost their house, silver serving dishes and wedding crystal—and the story he tells is heart-warming. When Bert’s mother complained that she didn’t have the Christmas spirit and “it will cost a fortune”, Bert took over. He volunteered to do all of the work and shopping—but he ran out of money and had to ask his mother for more.

His mother said “Just how much do you think it will cost to finance this damn foolishness?”

Bert recalls, “I dreaded to tell her. Ten Dollars”.

“Even as I write this,” says Bert, “almost fifty years later, it is hard to believe how much that amount of money actually represented. My mother and I stared at each other a long while, weighing the momentous sum before she carefully unbuttoned her coat. There, on the street, without glancing up or down, she quickly remove a bill from her boodle, a small bag that she always wore tucked into the top of her brassier.

‘Make it last,” she said wryly. “Try not to come home too late. And for God’s sake, don’t tell your father!”

“The party was a great success” remembers Bert. “All of the relatives ate well, demolished the desserts, and played games, and those who drank sang dirty songs afterward. All the cookies we made were carried off like Tiffany bibelots….” ***

(Bert’s story reminds me of the annual trips I made downtown (Cincinnati) when I was a child along with two younger brothers, sometime in December for a number of years. We might have no more than two dollars to buy presents for our parents, grandparents and siblings. My brother Bill’s money was mostly pennies, in a little change purse, that he held tightly in his fist to present any pickpockets from taking his money. It begs the question—how DID we manage bus fare, gifts for so many people—and sharing a grilled cheese sandwich at the Woolworth lunch counter? I can only compare it with the loaves and fishes in the bible story.) And we wrapped all of our presents with old gift wrap paper that was ironed to get the wrinkles out.

Maida Heatter, whose dessert cookbooks are familiar to all of us (including her “Maida Heater’s Book of Great Cookies”), tells the story of World War II, when she was a young mother with a one-year-old daughter. Her husband was in the army and her brother in the navy. Maida was living at home with her parents. Professionally, she says, she was a fashion illustrator—but her hobby was cooking. She tells the story of baking and mailing cookies to everyone she knew in the service. When the New York City USO wanted cookies for a big Christmas party, Maida began baking. “I baked those cookies,” she recalls, “from early until late every day for weeks. My only problem was getting enough boxes to pack them in. Food shortages and rationing (butter and sugar were strictly rationed) didn’t bother me, as there were always friends and neighbors who wanted to help. They gave me their ration coupons, they shopped for me and they helped pack the cookies. The filled boxes lined the entrance hall and the dining room flowed over into the living room. The day before Christmas a neighbor piled the boxes into his truck and my mother and I went along to deliver the cookies to the USO at Times Square. Gasoline was rationed but this was a priority delivery….”

“If I counted the cookies,” she writes, “or the number of recipes, that special Christmas, I don’t remember it now. One thing I do remember is that none of those cookies was dainty. They were all he-man cookies. The ones that had raisins or nuts had lots of them. The chocolate cookies were very chocolate. The spice cookies were very spicy. In a way, that one baking experience influenced everything I have baked since….”

(Maida provides the recipe for her mother’s gingersnaps, which I think I will have to try when I start baking Christmas cookies this year. Another cookie that has entered our lives—I was making batch after batch for a few months this year—is a molasses cookie that I found in the L.A. Times SOS column. My youngest son says they are like “a crack cookie” – you can’t stop eating them).

Helen Witty, whose “Fancy Pantry” cookbook is a favorite of mine, starts her memoir off with “Ways of keeping Christmas seem to drift down through the generations of a family, so it’s likely that the holiday customs I grew up with had been established on one coast or the other long before my mother, from the East, and my father, from the West, met in the Pugent Sound country, married, moved to Southern California, and began to bring up their own family. There, where snow and sleds and genuine holly were only a rumor, one family custom that came from somewhere was firmly maintained: the celebrations of Christmas Day began after breakfast, not before…” Helen goes on to relate her family Christmases, and sums up, “As in my childhood home, Christmas morning at our house still starts with a not-for-everyday breakfast…”

Her Christmas breakfasts reminded me of the many special Christmas breakfasts I prepared when my four sons were children, I’d bake a variety of sweet breads and stollen, but the piece de resistance in our household was always pork chops and gravy, a big pan of homemade biscuits, home fries and eggs, or occasionally, what I called a Mexican breakfast casserole. My husband’s mother was from Bluefield, West Virginia, and I learned the art of making what we called “white gravy” from her. If not pork chops, I’d fry cube steaks and then put them back into the white gravy after it was made.

There are heartwarming stories from twenty-five chefs and cookbook authors in “CHRISTMAS MEMORIES WITH RECIPES”. I’ve just given you a sampling—a small taste.

As the holidays draw near, we become busier and busier with shopping and addressing Christmas cards. During the years that Bob and I went to Pismo Beach for Thanksgiving weekend, I would take my cards and address book with me to start working on my cards and letters.

Last year (2011) was the most difficult Christmas. It was the first without Bob, who had shared my life for 26 years. I would have liked to go off and ignore the holiday, but was coaxed into putting up one of my trees—and my grandson, Ethan, was determined to put up the Snow Village, because it was one of those things his grandpa put up every year. I realized that so much of what we did—all the decorating inside and out—was accomplished only because Bob was such a willing spirit. He loved doing it. He loved the compliments.

Then a few angels made their way to the fireplace mantel and I found myself baking cookies and showing my grandson how to do some things. He and his sister also made gingerbread houses, from a kit we bought at Michael’s. After Christmas, I thought it was a good time to go through all of the ornaments and tree decorations; most had been packed in boxes and stored in a shed. I had some water damage to some of the boxes. Kelly took me to Walmart where I bought 20 large red and green plastic containers, and methodically went through all of the boxes, repacking everything in plastic containers that are now stored in Grandpa’s workshop. As I worked, I set aside all bear decorations/tree ornaments to send to my penpal, Betsy, who collects bears—with a suggestion that she put up a small bear tree. She liked the idea. I know I have to downsize but it’s a mammoth project that will take a lot of time to accomplish.
I hope we all will take a little time to reflect on Christmas, and what it means to each of us. These twenty five food writers have done just that. They have reflected on the Christmases of their pasts and have shared those memories with us. And much of what they have written reminds me so much of my own Christmas memories.

Author Julie Rosso sums up Christmas memories with words that all of us might appreciate: “Those years are long gone,” she writes, “and since that time there have been many Christmases in faraway places—some just like those of having as a child. We’ve found ourselves in Paris, New York, Vienna, Rome, Monte Carlo, and the Caribbean at Christmas time, and while it is ever so nice to visit other countries at Christmas, I’d give almost anything for one of those Christmases in Michigan, just once more”.
I haven’t spent any Christmases in other countries – but I would like to spend one, just once more – in Ohio, where it always seemed to start snowing on Christmas eve before we went to midnight mass.

“CHRISTMAS MEMORIES WITH RECIPES” was published by Kitchen Arts & Letter/Farrar, Straus & Giroux, New York, 1988. It is available on both and; prices start as low as 4 cents on Amazon. Alibris has copies for 99c.

FANCY PANTRY BY HELEN WITTY is available on starting at $2.40 for a soft cover copy. It also has some ridiculous prices, such as $129.99 for a hardbound copy. Alibris also has the book for $2.40 – and copies priced at $251.99 and $241.74. I can’t imagine anyone actually paying that much for a cookbook you can get for far less.

Maida Heater’s Book of Great Cookies is available on for 99c. I couldn’t find the EXACT same title on so am not listing it. She does have a number of cookie cookbooks listed.

Well, I have rambled on long enough with you. Cookie recipes are available on my blog along with some photographs of previous cookie baking marathons. I woke up one morning recently and realized that Christmas will never again be as sumptuous as it was for Bob and myself, for several decades, especially in Arleta where we put up 8 Christmas trees. That idea of spending Christmas in Ohio is becoming more appealing. I hope your holidays are cheery and bright.



I presented this to my readers a couple years ago–while I am trying to figure out how to find some things, I have been repeating myself here and there, with apologies.

Culinary Alchemy

For maybe over five years—maybe more like seven or eight now–I have been searching for a quote – a particular food quote. I KNOW you will forgive me for rehashing this topic once again but one of these days SOMEBODY is going to know the exact quote.

I searched high and low and far and wide, somewhat under the impression that it was something that perhaps M.F.K. Fisher or Elizabeth David had written. Needless to say I didn’t find it in either of their books that I have on my shelves. I searched through three books of food related quotes and did an extensive search on Google without having any success.

What the quote related to is the name of that “thing” – the subtle changes that occur when cooks trained in the same kitchen making the same dish, following the same recipe–end up with different results.

Also got to thinking one day as I was watching “Chopped” on the Food Network – that what they are doing is a take-off on this quote I am searching for. On Chopped, the contestants are given 3 or 4 of the same ingredients and in a specific amount of time (sometimes only 20 minutes!), have to create a dish–appetizer or an entrée or a dessert. They present their dish to the judges who decide which dish is the best and one contestant at a time is “chopped” or eliminated from the competition until finally one chef is declared the winner.

You all are probably familiar with this show so perhaps I am unnecessarily digressing. But what they are actually doing is WOK PRESENCE.

I accidentally found a quote while searching for something else. It was something Karen Hess wrote about in her outstanding book “THE CAROLINA RICE KITCHEN….THE AFRICAN CONNECTION”. Ms. Hess was referring specifically to African American women who, during the times of slavery, left their thumbprint on everything they cooked. They were a part of the south but they brought with them African influences which eventually changed the palate of southerners. Ms. Hess writes that the Chinese have a name for this, those subtle changes, and they call it Wok Presence.

(*I wrote an article for the Cookbook Collectors Exchange years ago, titled “OUR AFRICAN HERITAGE” which appeared in the Feb/March 1996 issue of the CCE – which was how I was led to The Carolina Rice Connection by Ms. Hess).

Another cookbook author, Rosa Lewis, had a somewhat different take on the same concept and wrote, “Some people’s food always tastes better than others, even if they are cooking the same dish at the same dinner. Now I will tell you why–because one person has more life in them–more fire, more vitality, more guts–than others. A person without these things can never make food taste right, no matter what materials you give them, it is not use Turn in the whole cow full of cream instead of milk, and all the fresh butter and ingredients in the world, and still the cooking will taste dull and flabby–just because they have nothing in themselves to give. You have got to throw feeling into cooking.” – and no, this is not the quote I have been looking for.

I have been aware of these subtle changes for most of my adult life. It’s why a recipe can be published in a cookbook with exact directions and measurements and my results may not be the same as your results. And there may be a dozen reasons why not.

In the early 1980s, when I was living in Florida, I became even more acutely aware of this difference as I tried to share some favorite recipes with my next door neighbor. She would come crying to me “My cookies burn! They don’t turn out like yours!” – I was baffled – after all, it was the famous Toll House cookie recipe on the back of every package of Nestle’s semi sweet morsels. How could it be different? I went over to her house to watch her bake the cookies and discovered that she would put two cookie trays, side by side – wedged in really, on a rack. The air couldn’t flow; the bottoms of the cookies burned.

I have been a great proponent, ever since, for baking two trays of cookies on two separate racks and switching them, top to bottom, bottom to top half way through baking to assure even baking, so the hot air circulates. And when I am baking and time is not an issue, I bake one tray of cookies at a time. I have a very old stove so I pamper it a lot.

But “Wok Presence” can affect us in many other different ways. For instance – a girlfriend of mine says my ranch dressing tastes better than hers. I discovered she uses Kraft Miracle Whip salad dressing. I use Best Foods Mayonnaise (Hellman’s if you are East of the Mississippi). Another time I discovered that a friend used a Polish Kolbasz for the Hungarian Layered potato recipe. You really need Hungarian Kolbasz to make an authentic Hungarian Layered potato casserole. That’s not to say that your dish won’t taste good. It just won’t taste AS good. It’s like – the difference you will get if you use margarine instead of real butter in a recipe. It will be ok. It just won’t be great.

Wok presence can be affected by the type of baking pans you use and the length of time something, such as a drop cookie, remains in the oven. I had this girlfriend at work who made such wonderful chocolate chip cookies. I asked her what the secret was. She replied that she under- baked the cookies; she would take them out of the oven a few minutes early and let them stand on the cookie sheet on a counter until they were cool enough to remove.
Such a small change but it made the difference between soft and chewy – and crisp.

I adopted her under baking rule with most butter cut out cookies that I make – when they are brown around the edges yet firm enough – I take them out and let them stand on the cookie sheets for a while before transferring to wire racks to finish cooling. And cookie sheets! The kind of cookie sheets you use can make all the difference in the world with your finished product. Now I replace cookie sheets every few years – and I use parchment paper on all of them, all of the time. It works better than the aluminum foil I used on the cookie sheets for years.

The more I think about this – the more certain I am that someone else, a famous cookbook author (and I am still leaning heavily towards Elizabeth David) said that the FRENCH have a name for it, those subtle differences that take place when two chefs – cook the same recipe, with the same ingredients – but each will turn out differently. There is a NAME for this and I am going crazy trying to pin it down.

My curiosity was piqued when someone sent me a food section from the San Jose Mercury News, published in September, 1994. The story was written by Kathie Jenkins of the Los Angeles Times, whose name I recognized. Jenkins opens the article, titled “IT’S NOT YOU, IT’S THE RECIPE” by relating the story of a lady whose hobby is trying recipes until she finds the perfect one. In her quest for the perfect crab cake, this cook tried many different versions including several provided by notable cookbook authors. “They were soggy little balls of yuck,” she reported. “Even my husband wouldn’t touch them, which is really amazing. They were too disgusting.”

All of this came as no surprise, Jenkins reports, “to the owner of the Cook’s Library, Los Angeles’ only all-cookbook shop. “More than half the books in my store have at least one recipe that doesn’t work” reported the storeowner.

And John Taylor, who owns a culinary bookstore in South Carolina and is the author of “Hoppin’ John’s Low Country Cooking” observed that, if he only sold books where the recipes worked, he wouldn’t have any books on his shelves.

The trouble is, writes Kathie Jenkins, that recipe testing is nearly always left to authors who must do it or pay for it. “For cookbook authors,” Jenkins notes, “slaving over a test kitchen stove can pay big dividends. The most popular personalities can earn hundreds of thousands of dollars. Added to this are revenues from product endorsements, consultant fees, sponsorships, television shows, and video cassettes.”
Or,” she continues, “in the case of style czarina Martha Stewart, your very own magazine. She started out as a Connecticut caterer, wrote the book, “Entertaining,” and parlayed that into a reported $2 million empire – plus a stream of royalties from television shows, videos, CDs and all those Martha Stewart products sold at Kmart…”

Jenkins notes that a famous name is no guarantee that the recipes work, however. Hoppin’ John Taylor commented, “Nobody in their right mind buys a Martha Stewart Book for a recipe. They buy them for her ideas and great pictures. If a recipe works in a Martha Stewart book, it’s somebody else’s.”
In defense of Martha Stewart and apologies to any Martha Stewart fans, a spokesperson for Martha Stewart commented, “That quote sounds like somebody in the cookbook business who wrote a book and it didn’t sell. I think those are just sour grapes.”

Whether it’s sour grapes or not, I’ll leave that for all of you to decide. What is relevant to the subject at hand is that cookbook publishers have no test kitchens. Most newspapers don’t either and consequently, they can’t test every recipe they print from a cookbook. Most recipes are printed as they appear in cookbooks or from wire services. For what it’s worth, the Los Angeles Times does have a test kitchen and a staff to cook in it. All of the recipes in the “Best of the Best” cookbooks published by Quail Ridge Press are pre-tested. You can generally expect a well-prepared Junior League cookbook to have tested recipes and they will often tell you so in their book by thanking the committee of testers who worked on the recipes (sometimes testing recipes three or four times). Jenkins notes that, unlike newspapers, which can correct a recipe the following week, if necessary, cookbook publishers can’t correct even the mistakes they’ll admit to, short of a recall or waiting until the next printing. And while cookbook publishers claim to care about accuracy in recipes, Jenkins notes, most are unwilling to spend the money to make sure the recipes actually work. In a standard publishing contract, the responsibility of recipe testing is left up to the writers.

Added to the mistakes that may be made somewhere between the writing of the cookbook and its publication, there is another important element to all of this. It translates to the difference between the kitchen of the cookbook author and the kitchen of the person who purchased the cookbook.

Author Paul Reidinger has written, “But the curious truth about recipes is that they often produce dramatically different results in different hands in different kitchens. Many times over the years I’ve told interested parties how I roast my chickens and make my salsa, and I am always convinced that my methods are simple and bulletproof – until I am advised that somebody else used one of my recipes exactly and still ended up with a mess. These admonishments remind me that recipes are only partly science; following a recipe is not like solving a quadratic equation. There is play involved, wiggle room, variance, uncertainty, and the person in charge has to know how to adjust.”

It’s also fairly well known that famed cookbook author Elizabeth David disliked giving exact measurements in her recipes. John Thorne, editor of a cooking newsletter called Simple Cooking, in writing about Elizabeth David, commented, “This – although contemporary food writers (or at least their editors) consider it (i.e., David’s distaste for exact measurements) an inexplicable even reader-hostile failing – expresses a direct truth. The responsibility for a dish must finally lie not with the writer but with the cook. Too much instruction muddles the reality of his responsibility. Cookbooks cannot hold hands; their task is to make the reader think. In Elizabeth David’s books, reader and writer face this fact across the page….”

And, not to run this subject to the ground, there are so many variables when it comes to cooking. The cookbook author’s oven is probably not the same as yours (and do you even know if your oven temperature is completely accurate? Have you ever tested it with an oven thermometer?). Are you using the right size pan? You are probably not using the same kind of flour or baking powder as the cookbook author used. Most recipes don’t specifically state what brand of flour is used, and a lot of people are unaware that baking powder has a limited shelf life. The same goes for spices and herbs. A lot of people don’t know that herbs and spices should be stored in a cool place, away from the stove. I was horrified to see, in a nationally circulated, well- known magazine, the photograph of a kitchen with a spice rack built right over the stove. I wrote to them to complain – that’s the worst place to put a spice rack. They did not respond to my letter. If your herbs and spices have been languishing on a shelf near the stove for a year or two, chances are they’ll have very little potency. That could affect your recipe.

Recently, my granddaughter Savannah and I flew to Sioux Falls South Dakota where we spent a week visiting my son and his wife. One day I baked chocolate chip cookies for him. I used a Silpat sheet on the cookie sheet (at home I use parchment paper) and within a day they were rock-hard even though I under baked them. Another day I baked two cakes – one a chocolate cake, from a mix, in a Bundt pan. The other cake was an angel food cake in a new pan that did NOT come out of the Teflon coated pan easily. I covered my mistakes with chocolate glaze. I have no explanation for the difficulties I encountered using their kitchen—I would blame it on the stove but it’s a very expensive stove that they bought only a year ago. I don’t think Sioux Falls is at any elevation different from Ohio (correct me if I’m wrong). The chocolate cake did not rise as much as it should have. I felt like a failure even though I recognize that the problem was not having my own kitchen to bake in.

Consequently, the skill and expertise of the cook is an important factor to the outcome of recipes. And what do you blame it on if it’s a recipe you have been baking in your home for over forty years? I would undoubtedly be a disaster in one of those Pillsbury Bake-Off kitchens.

But, as Kathie Jenkins reported in her newspaper article, there are a lot of bad recipes that have appeared in cookbooks. The test crew at the Los Angeles Times did a lot of research on their own and discovered there were some real losers (including two lemon pies from Martha Stewart’s “Pies and Tarts” cookbook). Says Jenkins, “Many of the reportedly faulty recipes not only worked but tasted wonderful. One award-winning cookbook author griped that he could never get Rose Levy Beranbaum’s genoise to work. We did. Another complained of far too much chile oil in the spicy soba noodles in Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger’s ‘City Cuisine’. The noodles were delicious. And Marion Cunningham’s gingerbread did not run all over the oven the way one authority claimed it would.”

“So many things,” Jenkins notes, “affect how well a recipe works—equipment, weather, ingredients, personal taste. So what’s a cookbook author to do? Vigilance and thorough working knowledge of one’s recipes are probably the best insurance..”

Jenkins comment on weather struck a chord. When we lived in Florida for three years, I discovered that some of my favorite recipes were simply impossible to make. The Stained Glass Window cookies simply dripped all the “stained glass” after a day or two and when I couldn’t get melted sugar to set up for the kids’ graham cracker houses, I put them into the oven thinking they would dry out. I set the oven on fire. You simply couldn’t make any kind of meringue cookie, due to the humidity–and I discovered that the beet sugar in Florida was much grainier than the Hawaiian sugar cane sugar we were so accustomed to using. For about two years, I had a girlfriend shipping me bags of C&H sugar from California. (This is probably not a major problem for someone who has central air conditioning in their home but that was a luxury we didn’t have, at the time. I was so happy when we moved back to
California where—despite the intense heat of summers—we seldom have humidity to deal with.

“Good cooking”, wrote Yuan Mei, “does not depend on whether the dish is large or small, expensive or economical. If one has the art, then a piece of celery or salted cabbage can be made into a marvelous delicacy whereas if one has not the art, not all the greatest delicate rarities of land, sea or sky are of any avail.”

Since wok presence is boiled down to leaving your thumbprint – it seems logical to share a thumbprint cookie recipe with you:

Cranberry thumbprints (From the LA TIMES COOKIE CONTEST)

Total time: 1½ hours, plus cooling and chilling times

Servings: Makes about 6 dozen cookies.

Note: Adapted from a recipe by Kim Gerber.

Cranberry jam

1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons water, divided

1/3 cup sugar

1/2 teaspoon orange zest

1 (10-ounce) package frozen cranberries

1 (1-inch) piece cinnamon stick

2 tablespoons corn starch

1. In a medium saucepan, whisk together one-fourth cup of water, the sugar and orange zest. Stir in the cranberries and cinnamon stick and bring to a low boil over medium heat. Reduce the heat to medium-low and continue to cook for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.

2. In a small bowl, whisk together the remaining 2 tablespoons of water with the cornstarch to form a slurry. Thoroughly stir the slurry in with the cranberry mixture and continue to cook for about 30 seconds, stirring constantly, to thicken. Remove from heat and set aside to cool. This makes a scant 1½ cups jam, more than is needed for the remainder of the recipe. The jam will keep, covered and refrigerated, for up to 2 weeks.

Cookies and assembly

2 cups whole-wheat pastry flour

1 cup all-purpose flour

2 tablespoons ground flax meal
1/2 teaspoon sea salt

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
1 egg

1 teaspoon orange zest

1 tablespoon lemon juice

1/2 cup coarse raw sugar (for rolling)

About 3/4 cup cranberry jam

Powdered sugar for dusting (optional)

1. In a medium bowl, whisk together the whole-wheat pastry flour and the all-purpose flour, along with the flax meal and salt.

2. In the bowl of a stand mixer using the paddle attachment, or in a large bowl using a hand mixer, beat together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in the egg, then the orange zest and juice. Reduce the speed of the mixer and slowly add the flour mixture until thoroughly combined to form a dough.

3. Roll about 1½ teaspoons of dough into balls. Roll each ball in the raw sugar, then place on parchment-lined baking sheets, spacing about 2½ inches apart. Press an indentation into the center of each ball using your thumb or finger.

4. Refrigerate the sheets until the dough is hardened, 20 to 30 minutes. Meanwhile, heat the oven to 350 degrees.

5. Bake each sheet of cookies for 7 minutes. Remove each sheet, and quickly re-press the indentation in the center of each cookie using the handle of a wooden spoon. Continue baking the cookies until set and golden, about 10 minutes. Remove from heat and cool on wire racks.

6. To assemble the cookies, place a small dollop (about one-half teaspoon) of the jam in the indentation of each cookie. Sprinkle powdered sugar over the cookies, if desired, before serving.

Each of 6 dozen cookies: 62 calories; 1 gram protein; 9 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram fiber; 3 grams fat; 2 grams saturated fat; 9 mg cholesterol; 5 grams sugar; 13 mg sodium.

Happy Cooking & Happy cookbook collecting! – Sandy


I’ve posted this before–letters continue to come in from people all over the USA who remember Meta Given’s cookbooks with great fondness and, in some cases, are trying to find one of them. This is what I wrote:

Originally on February 14, 2011, I wrote the following blog post: “Abe of asked 500 customers who owned a cookbook that had been given to them by a family member to tell the story about their handed down culinary companions. He wrote, “Those old, splattered, battered cookbooks found on kitchen shelves are also treasured family heirlooms in many cases. According to research by, Irma Rombauer’s The Joy of Cooking is the cookbook most frequently handed down through the generations. The books often spanned several generations of cooks and had huge sentimental value. In 96 per cent of the cases, a grandmother, mother and mother-in-law had handed over the book to the next generation. The books tended to have a long history within each family – 58 per cent of the cookbooks were more than 50 years old. Thirty eight per cent of the current owners said they had owned the book for more than 30 years…”

Well, recently I had the opportunity to hold in my own two hands a copy of JOY that had belonged, for decades, to my sister-in-law, Bunny Schmidt, who passed away from cancer of the esophagus in 2012, about eleven months after my partner Bob passed away from the same disease. It’s a battered and stained Joy, exactly what Abe Books was talking about. I am delivering it to my niece Leslie in a couple weeks. She is the oldest child of my brother and sister in law, Bunny.

The cookbook I grew up on, and learned to cook from, was – as I have written before in Sandychatter—an Ida Bailey Allen Service cookbook that I believe my mother bought for a dollar at Woolworth’s. (I now have that very cookbook, which is certainly battered, tattered and stained. Years later I searched for, and found, more pristine copies).

When I was a teenager, a copy of Meta Given’s “The Modern Family Cookbook” appeared in our family bookcase (a little cherry wood bookcase with glass doors, that my younger sister now has). I think it was a book club offering but that baffles me as neither of my parents ever joined a book club. I have a vague memory of my mother refusing to pay for it and so it languished on the family bookshelves until I began to read it and eventually claimed for my own. And, to add to the mystery, there is no indication on the inside pages of the cookbook that it was ever a book club selection. The original copyright was 1942. This edition was copyrighted by Meta Given in 1953, which sounds about right to me.

Not surprisingly, the pages most stained are those with cookie recipes on them- rocks and hermits, gum drop cookies, something called cocoa Indians, lemon drop cookies and molasses drop. My mother turned me loose in the kitchen when I was 9 or 10 years old and most of the time, I baked cookies. I really wasn’t. interested in cooking anything else at the time.

I now own a copy of the original 1942 “Modern Family Cookbook” which is somewhat thicker and heavier than the 1953 edition. In 1947, Meta compiled “Meta Given’s Modern Encyclopedia of Cooking which is in two volumes. I had to laugh at myself; I thought I only had a copy of Volume I but when I began going through some of my old cookbooks in our new built garage library, I found a copy of Volume II.

None of my copies of Meta Given books have dust jackets and therein is the crux of the matter – so often, biographical information can be found on the dust jackets of cookbooks. I began a Google search:

Margi Shrum of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wrote the following in April, 2009 “I spoke last week to a group of parents of special-needs children, and the conversation turned to old cookbooks. Egads, I love them. My favorite is one my late mother used, “Meta Given’s Encyclopedia of Cooking,” which seems to have been first published in 1947. I have the 1955 edition. It’s chock-a-block with antiquated stuff. I never, and you shouldn’t, use the techniques for canning or preserving foods in these old books, and I am never going to make Muskrat Fricassee (calls for one dressed muskrat. If I could picture what a muskrat looked like I’d picture it dressed in top hat and tails. Carrying a cane). But there’s also a lot of useful stuff in this book, which is in two volumes and has 1,500 pages. I’ve tried loosely over the years to find information about the author but to little avail. She was of some note in the 1940s through the early ’60s, if the popularity of her cookbooks is any indication. Her first was the “The Modern Family Cookbook,” published in 1942.”

Margie adds, “The encyclopedia’s foreword says Ms. Given grew up on a ‘Missouri hill farm’ learning to cook with the limited foodstuffs available to her. She then studied home economics and became involved in developing and testing recipes, and in writing about nutrition, shopping and kitchen equipment. Her foreword to my edition — purchased on eBay and immediately chewed on by my golden retriever puppy, who smelled food — was written from Orlando in 1955….”

May I add that the foreword also states that Meta Given..” had good food (growing up) but little variety. The women were forced to be resourceful in presenting the same simple foods in a variety of interesting ways. She watched food grow on her family’s farm and worked to help it develop into a sound and abundant harvest. She learned to store and preserve a summer’s plenty to last through the winter months. And she acquired from her parents a deep appreciation for the goodness of earth’s bounty…”

Sure enough, Volume II of Modern Encyclopedia of Cooking” offers a recipe for Muskrat Fricasse—as well as recipes for antelope, deer and beaver. It also has a recipe for Hasenpfeffer which I won’t ever be trying. Hasenpfeffer was the bane of my childhood. If you came home from school and smelled it cooking, you knew we were having it for dinner and there was no escape.

Also offered in Volume II are recipes for raccoon, squirrel, woodchuck and turtle. Meta lost me at “evisceration and removal of feathers, removal of fur….” But you know what? Of all the comprehensive cookbooks in my collection, these are surely the most detailed (everything you ever wanted to know but were afraid to ask? I wasn’t afraid to ask—I just never wanted to KNOW).

Elsewhere on Google, someone wrote, “My mother was only 17 years old when she got married. Somewhere in that time, she was given a special two volume cookbook set called Meta Given’s Encyclopedia of Modern Cooking. It was a true cookbook of the 50’s, offering advice so basic, the author must have assumed many of her readers couldn’t boil water. Until Julia Child altered my mother’s views on food, Meta Given’s was the only cookbook in our home. The recipes were so simple and straightforward, I learned to cook from them at a very young age. By the time I was nine years old I could make real fudge, basic one-bowl cakes, quick breads, and peanut butter cookies all by myself. I also learned to make a pumpkin yeast bread when I was slightly older. Over the years my mother’s Meta Given’s cookbook disintegrated into a pile of loose pages. However, I was able to track down a used set several years ago. Although most of the recipes seem outdated, it was quite an experience just holding the cookbook while childhood memories rushed back…”

The following single line clue was also found on Google: “When not penning cookbooks, Ms. Given—I don’t think she’d approve the title, but an extensive Google search fails to reveal her marital status— taught Home Ec at the University of Chicago in the post-World War II years…”

Maybe Meta Given tired of teaching in Chicago and returned to her home in Missouri. We may never know- but if you are interested in finding her books, there are umpteen sites to choose from as you browse through Google.
I have the following:

• The Modern Family Cook Book published in 1942
• Modern Encyclopedia of Cooking Volumes 1 and II published in 1947
• The Modern Family Cook Book, published in 1953

As well as the following, which I do not have:

• The Art of Modern Cooking and Better Meals: recipes for every occasion
• The Modern Family Cook Book New Revised Edition
• The Modern Family Cook Book by Meta Given 1968
• The Wizard Modern Family Cookbook
• Delicious Dairy Dishes

On August 10, 2011 someone named Don posted the following comment:

Hi Sandy, Please let me know if you ever find out what happened to Meta Given. I have been going through some old family letters and it turns out that my great aunt, Helen Swadey, was her assistant in the 40′s and 50′s. She would help with the writing and arranging the final meals for the photo shoot. Thanks! Don

I sent Don the following message: “Hi, Don – how interesting that your great aunt worked for Meta Given! I HAVEN’T learned anything more than what I wrote but maybe someone will read this and write, if they know anything else about her. Oddly enough I have had emails from a number of people, in response to other cookbook authors I have written about – so there’s always a possibility that someone will see the inquiry and shed some light on this prolific and excellent cookbook author. Now, that would have been a job I’d have loved – assistant to Meta Given! Let me know if you learn anything else.

On February 2, someone named Brenda sent the following message to my blog:
I am preparing a Birthday Party for my mother who turns 80 this July. We are having a picnic theme, and we are replacing my mother’s Meta Given Cookbooks with a better set. The sisters of the family are HUGE fans of Meta Given, and I am trying to find anything out about her to have it framed for my mother to put in her kitchen. She raised all of us girls using this cookbook and we all have copies!! I know I am a little late adding this comment, but can you or anyone help me out? Sincerely, Brenda

On February 22, 2012, Karen wrote the following message: I had to comment because one of my earliest memories of Thanksgiving is my mother and grandmother quoting Meta Given about making turkey gravy: “You can only make so much fine favored gravy.” I haven’t even looked at the recipe in years, but must admit that I do know how to make fine flavored gravy and I don’t even eat gravy! Thanks Meta. I have my grandmother’s copy. My mother still has and uses her own copy. My oldest daughter has her other grandmother’s 2 book set. Over the years, I have managed to collect one of the single book editions for my sister and two copies of the 2 book sets for my sisters-in-law. Just recently, I finally got the single book edition for my youngest daughter. We are a family devoted to Meta Given, which is why I found your blog. I was looking for some information about her and started to do some research. So, if you find out anything else about her, I’d be delighted to hear it and then I will in turn share it with the rest of the family. Thanks!

On February 25 2012, Neil sent the following message: I’m a 44-year old single guy who grew up with a mother who occasionally whipped out this tattered, index-missing BIBLE. I have no other name for it… other then the BIBLE that was in our kitchen. Meta Given’s Modern Encyclopedia of Cooking. The version I’m most familiar with is the single volume gem published in 1955 on its EIGHTEENTH printing (35,000 copies). My mom was inspired by the “White Sauce” in that book – creamed onions were a Thanksgiving tradition. Like most people who are reading this, when I finally understood the power of Google I FINALLY had a chance to have my own copy of this piece of history – it’s WAY more than a cookbook and we all know it. I paid almost $200 because I just had to have it. Since then I purchased a “backup” copy – you know… just in case. That one is in a safe room where the temperature and humidity is just right. A few years ago I stumbled upon a dessert recipe that blew me away – Lemon Chiffon Custard on page 746 in my book. “A puffy cake-like topping and a creamy custard bottom layer.” OMG”

On May 2, 2013, Janice King Smith sent the following message: “According to census reports she (Meta Given) returned to her hometown of Bourbios, MO, and later relocated to Florida. Being from the general area, I was happy to have The Modern Family in my collection and enjoy seeing the differences between how she prepared the meal versus what we were taught by my grandma who lived during the same time frame literally 3-4 hours away from each other.”

On May 24, 2012 Anna wrote the following message: I am doing a little research on Meta Given… My Mother’s maiden name was Given. I was told Meta Given was a Great Aunt of mine from Missouri that wrote cookbooks, and I have all copies of her cookbooks, and learned to cook from them. The books I have were been passed down through the years from my grandmother..Ruby Given, to my mother Anna Jane Given, and now to me. I will be passing them on someday to my children and grandchildren!

On June 22, 2012 Gil wrote the following: I have the 1953 version of Meta Given’s Modern Family Cookbook. I turn to this book when I need to know how I should cook a vegetable that won’t be listed in most cookbooks and I have more than 100. I am going to cook turnips today and I want to know a cooking time. I recently checked in this book for a cooking time for beets. I have two of these books but one is so battered that I am afraid to open it.
Gil Wilbur Claymont,DE.

Now, many months later, after years of searching and speculating about the unknown later life of Meta Given, my new-found friend, Bonnie Slotnick, who owns a cookbook store in New York** (see address at end of article) managed to unearth information about Meta that no one has been able to discover.

It turns out that food writer Jane Nickerson***, writing for the Lakeland Ledger in 1981, interviewed Meta and in an article that appeared in the December 10,m 1981 Lakeland Ledger food column, discovered “the rest of the story” –the details no one knew about Meta Given once she disappeared from the cookbook publishing limelight.

By Jane Nickerson, writing for the Lakeland Ledger on December 10, — wrote the following: “A few lines the other day in this paper reporting the death of Lakelander Meta Given in no way hinted the professionalism of that nonogenarian, [sic] author of the monumental, two-volume cookbook ‘Meta Given’s Modern Encyclopedia of Cooking.’

That brilliant work, published in 1947 by J.G. Ferguson and later distributed by Doubleday, contained in its 1969 edition 1,665 pages, 71 tables and charts, 230 photographs in black-and-white and color, 2,906 tested recipes and more than 200 drawings. Considerably in excess of a million copies are now in use.

Born and reared on a farm in the Ozarks, where, as she once put it, ‘my parents had no money,’ Miss Given remained throughout a vigorous life essentially modest and straightforward.

At 15, she had finished her own education, or so she thought, and was teaching in a rural grade school. Later she instructed high-school students in physics, chemistry and agriculture.

But she began to feel she needed more training. In 1916, she enrolled in the University of Chicago to study a subject still in its infancy at that time—home economics. She went on to work for the Evaporated milk Association, developing recipes for that trade group. Then came a stint as food editor of the Chicago Tribune”.

“But the Depression came along,” Meta told Jane in a 1975 interview, “and in 1931, the Tribune fired me. By that time I had my own test kitchen and staff and was also doing freelance work in recipe development and food photography for Kraft and other companies.

“I couldn’t fire my staff. But the jobs that came along were spasmodic, and so to keep my people busy, I started them working on a household cookbook.” In 1942, J. G. Ferguson, a Chicago printer whom Miss Given had consulted, published the “Modern Family Cookbook.” From it, the encyclopedia developed.

A heart attack in the late 1940s persuaded Miss Given she should pursue a quieter life. The tall, spare, broad-shouldered woman, with a coronet of white hair, wound up her hectic career in Chicago, and retired to Florida, where, among other things, she grew oak leaf lettuce and developed recipes for pies using loquats and other local fruits.

Her inborn modesty made her hard to interview. Among the first “career women” in this century, she wore her accomplishments lightly, and could not understand why anyone should be especially interested in recording them.

This article was unearthed for us by Bonnie Slotnick of Bonnie Slotnick Cookbooks 163 West Tenth Street New York, New York 10014-3116 USA –so if you are searching for your mother or grandmother’s tried-and true-cookbook you might want to contact Bonnie.

Happy cooking and happy cookbook collecting!

UPDATE! May 10, 2015

If you have ever read the above, which was posted on my blog February 11, 2011, under the title “Searching for Meta Given”, you will no doubt notice the many readers who have written about Meta Given – – mostly people who had her cookbooks or were looking for them.

*why the red italics? Because, I thought—it was because Meta couldn’t bring herself to fire her staff during a particular stringent period, she put them to work on a cookbook – a cookbook which turned out to be the nucleus of the two volume cookbooks published in 1947, that people are searching for still, today. Some of whom are paying big bucks for! But I get it. As all of you know, you who have some of Meta Given’s cookbooks—they are timeless, recipes you can follow from start to stop without wondering if it will turn out right. And there is hardly a topic that Meta doesn’t write about!

**Looking for a particular old cookbook? Contact Bonnie Slotnick at or at 163 W. 10th Street, NY NY 10014-3116

***Jane Nickerson, food writer for the Lakeland Ledger also wrote a cookbook about Florida food and recipes. Jane passed away March 2, 2000. She was employed as a food writer from 1973 to 1988 for the Lakeland Ledger.

–Review by Sandra Lee Smith with a special thank you to everyone who ever wrote to request or provide information. A special thanks to Bonnie Slotnick whose culinary sleuthing provided “the rest of the story” as Paul Harvey would say.

=–Sandra Lee Smith


Cooking, and I mean this as all aspects of cooking including baking, has been such an integral part of my life that I feel it should be addressed entirely on its own.

I have told the story of my first experience in cooking. My mother was allowing me to make some muffins. I assume I was following a recipe in my mother’s Ida Bailey Allen Service cookbook. The ingredients and the muffin pan were on the kitchen table. My mother instructed me to leave the yellow Pyrex bowl on the table as I stirred the ingredients—but I wanted to hold the bowl in the crook of my arm like I had seen it done on TV. Needless to say, I dropped the bowl and it crashed to the floor. I ran upstairs crying.

My memory stops right there. Did I go clean up the mess? When did I try again? I surely did because I have been making many kinds of muffins almost all my life. And it took me at least a year to save up enough money to buy my mother another yellow bowl –you couldn’t buy JUST the bowl—you had to buy the entire Pyrex set, which cost about $3.95.

Somehow, I saved up the money and gave the bowl—the entire set of bowls—to my mother. I may have been about ten years old – where did I get the money? I have no idea. I don’t think I started babysitting for my older sister and some of the young mothers in our neighborhood until I was about twelve years old. I was always looking after my younger brothers.

One thing my mother did make from scratch for many years was homemade bread. She baked two large loaves of bread (in black speckled roasting pans) twice a week. I think the homemade bread must have gone by the wayside when my mother began working full time.

I began baking the cookie recipes in Ida Bailey Allen’s Service cookbook; I particularly remember making large peanut butter cookies to send to my mother who was in the hospital at the time.

I learned how to make brownies. From my mother I learned how to make salmon patties from a can of salmon. I learned how to make macaroni and cheese and macaroni with tomato sauce. When I was ten or eleven, my mother instructed me to make dinner for my three brothers (this was long before my brother Scott was born) – mom and my father were going to a dinner.

“Do we really have to eat this?” they asked Dad.
“Every bite” he told them.

Our dinner was salmon patties, canned spinach and macaroni and cheese, with cottage cheese as a salad. When we had finished eating, my brothers all stood up together, grasped their stomachs, and fell down on the floor, pretending to be unconscious. I may have cried, kicking them. They thought it was a good joke.

Salmon patties played a part throughout my life. Years later, when Bob and I had driven in our little Chinook camper to Point Arena in northern California, it was late and we were hungry. We parked in the Point Arena camping area but couldn’t sign in until the next morning. Meanwhile I began making macaroni and cheese (from the blue box) and salmon patties. The mac and cheese was only halfway done and the salmon patties a little on the undone side when we ran out of propane–but we ate them anyway.

For many years after that, whenever I made salmon patties and mac and cheese, Bob would say “This is good but you know what was really GREAT? Those salmon patties and mac and cheese you made that cold foggy night in Point Arena—“ and that was how his memory always remembered that meal.

The next day I took beautiful pictures of the Point Arena light house – many I would have enlarged and framed – and we continued north until we reached the redwoods; we camped near a river and Bob would strike up conversations with people in thirty footer motor homes—us with our little Chinook.

The day after that, we traveled south in very hot weather and so traveled west to get back at camp grounds near Morro Bay where it was always much cooler; we traveled south to reach Pismo Beach again. Throughout our stays I cooked on a two-burner little gas stove. I think we also visited the lighthouse at Morro Bay. I would say that was our best vacation. **

But getting back to my learning how to cook—I learned some things from my
mother, other things from the Ida Bailey Allen Service cookbook. At some point in time, my mother acquired a Meta Given cookbook. She always maintained that Readers Digest sent the book to her, unsolicited, and she refused to pay for it. I began reading the recipes in the Meta Given cookbook and eventually acquired it for myself. I was curious about Meta Given for many years—until I began researching her and writing about her life and cookbooks.

In a blog article I posted in 2013, I wrote:

“I think it was a book club offering but that baffles me as neither of my parents ever joined a book club. I have a vague memory of my mother refusing to pay for it and so it languished on the family bookshelves until I began to read it and eventually claimed for my own. And, to add to the mystery, there is no indication on the inside pages of the cookbook that it was ever a book club selection. The original copyright was 1942. This edition was copyrighted by Meta Given in 1953, which sounds about right to me.

Not surprisingly, the pages most stained are those with cookie recipes on them- rocks and hermits, gum drop cookies, something called cocoa Indians, lemon drop cookies and molasses drop. My mother turned me loose in the kitchen when I was 9 or 10 years old and most of the time, I baked cookies. I really wasn’t interested in cooking anything else at the time.

I now own a copy of the original 1942 “Modern Family Cookbook” which is somewhat thicker and heavier than the 1953 edition. In 1947, Meta compiled “Meta Given’s Modern Encyclopedia of Cooking which is in two volumes. I had to laugh at myself; I thought I only had a copy of Volume I but when I began going through some of my old cookbooks in our new built garage library, I found a copy of Volume II.

None of my copies of Meta Given books have dust jackets and therein is the crux of the matter – so often, biographical information can be found on the dust jackets of cookbooks…”

Over time, as readers found my blog articles (http://sandy about Meta Given on Google, they began to write to me and I learned more about her. (there are over six hundred comments in response to this post).

Mean while—back in the 1950s—I was a teenager learning how to cook. In my sophomore year at Mother of Mercy High School, I took cooking classes with Mrs. Cunningham—a dedicated and delightful teacher if ever there was one, who treated cooking as a science. It was there I began to understand that if you could read and follow directions—you could cook–or bake.

Mrs. Cunningham realized that one other classmate and I had more knowledge about cooking than most of her students and so would single us out to take messages to the principal or run other errands. Once a week or so, we were assigned one of the stoves in the cooking class and would make something. I remember once making cream of pea soup out of canned peas—which gives me something to think about these many years later as I make split pea soup with dried peas. Mrs. Cunningham’s approach may have been to get the soup made in a class of 45 minutes. For the life of me, I can’t remember what else we cooked in that class.

At the age of eighteen, I married a boy whose mother was from West Virginia. I didn’t have the best of relationships with his mother but I did learn how to make white (southern) gravy from her, as well as perfect fried chicken and fresh string beans cooked until they almost fell apart. (The fresh green beans was a departure from my mother’s CANNED green beans—speaking of which, my mother always cooked canned corn, peas, green beans, asparagus, beets; if there was a canned version of vegetables, that’s what we grew up on. I nevertasted fresh asparagus until we had been living in California for a few years. Ditto fresh spinach.

Come to think of it, I never tasted a steak until we moved to California. Or avocadoes! Or Clam Chowder! Or Yogurt! Or Artichokes!

In 1961, my father bought several copies of a cookbook being sold by one of his coworkers. That book was the 50 ANNIVERSARY COOKBOOK by WOMEN’S GUILD MATTHEW’S UNITED CHURCH OF CHRIST (in Cincinnati) – for something like one dollar each. He gave one of the cookbooks to me but several years would pass by before I began to wonder if there were other church and/or club cookbooks such as the one Dad bought and asking myself how I could go about finding those cookbooks. I wrote a letter to a magazine called Women’s Circle (not to be confused with Family Circle or Woman’s Day that are still being published). Women’s Circle was published by Tower Press and was entirely made up of letters sent in by women like myself—looking for a book or penpals or any number of other things. I was looking for a Culinary Press cookbooklet of Hungarian recipes for my friend Peggy whose husband was Hungarian) – I think I received well over two hundred letters—some for the Hungarian cookbooklet – I bought two copies for $1.00 each, one for Peggy and one for myself—and began answering the other letters and buying many different cookbooks that formed the nucleus of my cookbook collection.

And it was a revelation to discover the thousands of church and club cookbooks being published over the decades. It was how I knew what to do when my sons’ grammar school PTA announced the desire to compile a cookbook. I immediately contacted the woman whose name was on a flyer my sons brought home from school in 1971—two of those women became life time girlfriends – and our cookbook, RECIPE ROUNDUP was published in 1971.

Moving to California was the proving ground for many foods and many more recipes. I began collecting cookbooks in 1965—some years later, I began collecting filled recipe boxes; I didn’t want just an empty recipe box—I wanted the collection of recipes that can sometimes be found in recipe boxes that turn up in antique stores or even thrift shops. I wanted to find out what recipes other women collected. I began to think of them as the Kitchen Diaries.

And so here I am, in my 70s and not doing very much cooking. I continue to bake but generally give the cookies or cakes away—often to people I am bowling with. Bob passed away in 2011. Jim and I divorced in April of 1986. I met Bob around in August of that year. We did a lot of canning and he was a willing helper. We entered the L.A. County Fair for about a decade, proudly displaying our blue ribbons (and even the red and yellow ribbons).

If I have learned anything along the way—it’s that if you can’t BE cooking, you can at least WRITE about cooking.

–Sandra Lee Smith

Reference (see also)
SEARCHING FOR META GIVEN, originally posted 2/14/11. UPDATED JUNE 22, 2013


The California Lancaster Library’s Friends of the Lancaster Library had its annual book sale this week and I ended up with making two trips and filling 3 of my heavy-duty cloth tote bags both times—I think I spent about $30 altogether and it was money well spent – the Friends of the Lancaster California Library buys computers and other well needed items for the library. In a recent newsletter sent to members such as myself, I learned that several members of the library staff went on a shopping trip to Barnes and Noble recently and were able to spend $20,000 on books and media for various sections of the library. They also added support to programs at the library. Can you imagine?  This is what the re-sale of books was able to do!

From the viewpoint of a book lover—the annual Friends’ sale is like finding candy in the candy store for a fraction of the regular prices—the Lancaster Friend’s book sale is very organized; the books are divided into categories such as children’s/young adult/cooking/biographies and fiction. The fiction category alone is huge but everything, such as mysteries and thrillers, are then divided into alphabetical order. The Friends volunteers spend an entire week getting all the books in order. Hard cover books are priced at a dollar each (but the sale on Fridays is half price day so those hardcover books I like so much will be 50c each. On Saturday, books are a “buck a bag”.

I’ve been to a lot of library’s Friends of the Library book sales in the San Fernando valley for over twenty years—and we donated two SUV’s-full of books to the Burbank Friends when I was moving to the Antelope Valley. After we moved and got settled, I donated six boxes full of more books. When you find yourself with too many books (if such a condition is possible) donating them to a library’s Friends of the Library organization is a worth-while way to go. The only reason I have thinned out some of my shelves was because my companion Bob’s taste in fiction wasn’t the same as mine. I’ve given dozens—maybe hundreds—of the books he enjoyed reading to the Lancaster Library’s Friends.

(I did give some of Bob’s special interests, such as his Mark Twain collection to a close friend who is also a book lover)

The reason I am sharing all of this with you is because maybe – just maybe – you love books and aren’t aware of the various Friends of the Library book sales in your area.

I know that our Lancaster Friends organization always needs volunteers; I think of this all the time, wishing I were in better physical condition to help set up the books. They always need help unpacking and sorting the books too.

This year I happened to find a Myra Waldo cookbook I didn’t have—the Art of Spaghetti Cookery (you might want to read my blog post about Myra Waldo—still one of the most fascinating cookbook authors I have ever encountered). I also found a book—in fine condition—titled HOW THE WORLD COOKS CHICKEN – that I think may be my next cookbook review.

I bought about a dozen children’s books for the children’s section of my garage library—about a dozen spiral-bound local cookbooks that feels like some one’s   cookbook collection. I bought perhaps thirty or forty paperback books with various titles and perhaps twenty or so hard bound books of fiction. Sometimes a title is one of “my” authors that I buy even though I have a copy – I am always trying to make converts out of my friends. (I have converted several friends to Robert Morgan’s books—he is one of my favorite authors—as is Adriana Trigiani; I found an extra copy of one of her early titles, “Big Stone Gap” that I am confident I can give to someone who will read it and like her writing style. I even got my soon-to-be twenty years old granddaughter reading some of Adriana’s books. It’s nice to have extra copies of some of your favorite books to give away when the opportunity presents itself. Sometimes I send some of my favorites to my penpals.

Well, I started this train of thought this morning primarily to share some of my convictions about a library’s Friends of the Library organizations and to let other book lovers know that while you can read a book on a digital device, such as a Book Nook—it isn’t the same as having a real book in your hands to read, to tell friends about, sometimes to share with. I remember when Janet Evanovich’s books first began to be published. I bought the books immediately and then would share them with co-workers. It was so popular that we had to have a list on the blackboard at work, so everyone would know whose turn was next to read the books. I think I may have converted some coworkers into reading.

–Sandra Lee Smith