Stories from a Family Cookbook

Story by Gordon Mercer and Marcia Gaines Mercer. Photo by Julie Weatherbee.

“All you need is love. But a little chocolate now and then doesn’t hurt.” Charles Schulz

Marcia’s Aunt Betty has a cookbook with the inscription, “Marjorie learned to cook out of this cookbook, so it is hers.” It was signed simply, “Mama.”  Marjorie, Marcia’s grandmother, was a wonderful cook.

The Old Cookbook

The cookbook has a copyright date of 1898 and bears witness to overuse. There are side notes.

There are recipes tucked between its pages which were cut out from other publications and pasted on cards. There are recipes copied in careful handwriting on sheets the publisher left blank for that purpose. There are recipes from friends, typed on old typewriters with keys that stick. The old type print still looks crisp and dignified.

“Beaten Until Blistered”

The cookbook is a study. For turkey soup the recipe reads, “Let the bones boil all morning.” Biscuits are “beaten until blistered” and cooked in a “moderately quick” oven.

There is yummy sounding fried bread served with ‘‘various colored and flavored jellies.” There is creamed shredded codfish boiled in hot milk.

Marcia’s grandmother’s handwritten recipes were family friendly and included butterscotch pie, sponge cake and chocolate nut bread. The Got to be North Carolina Tent at the upcoming North Carolina State Fair gives the public a chance to discover and sample old recipes from across North Carolina.


The cookbook is filled with advice. There is a recipe for camphorated oil which is a mixture of kerosene, gum camphor and sweet oil. Camphorated oil is listed as good for sore throats and burns.

Iceland moss boiled in water with brown sugar and lemon is listed as a cough and cold remedy. Iceland moss is still used today and may have antibiotic properties.

A Record of Family Travels

Family recipes frequently tell a story and reflect where we have been and where we came from. Marcia’s grandfather lived with a Minorcan family for a time. Her grandmother’s spicy shrimp pilau is Minorcan inspired.

Pfeffernusse – Even the Mice Wouldn’t Eat it

Buried between the pages of the cookbook, Marcia was delighted to find, in her grandmother’s handwriting, the recipe for pfeffernusse. It is a chewy and very spicy German cookie that her grandmother made every Christmas.

There is a family story that her grandfather took a tin full of the cookies to his office at the railroad, where he worked. When he returned from Christmas vacation and reached for the cookies in his desk drawer, he found mice had eaten the plastic lid but had not touched the cookies. When teased about it, Marcia’s grandmother was not amused.

Presidential Eats

Since we are in an election cycle, we decided to check into what some of our U. S.  Presidents and Founding Fathers favored in dining. George Washington reportedly loved fish. He also liked olives and nuts.

Dolley Madison’s dinner parties featured the latest culinary sensation, ice cream. Dolley’s favorite flavors, pink peppermint, apricot and strawberry, became all the rage. Jefferson ate meat sparingly and served French cuisine at Monticello.

Michelle Obama has championed healthy childhood nutrition and favors vegetables from local farmers markets and her White House vegetable garden. Mitt Romney, according to an eBook by Mike Allen and Evan Thomas, stays fit on turkey, rice and broccoli.

Eat Well, Live Long

Men, during the historical period of our Founding Fathers, had an average life span of only 39. Yet John Adams lived to be 90 and Ben Franklin, 84.

Adams favored simple dining and preferred eating codfish cake, roasted fish, creamed corn soup, pumpkin pie and vegetables along with large quantities of apple cider. Ben Franklin was fond of Native American foods like corn, turkey, potatoes and cranberries. He also had large quantities of apples sent to him, wherever he traveled. We took note of the apple longevity connection and that current research indicates apples help prevent cancer, dementia, Alzheimer’s disease and also reduces your risk of type 2 diabetes.

We may take Charles Schulz’s advice before returning the old cookbook to Marcia’s Aunt. Her grandmother’s chocolate nut bread recipe sounds yummy, served warm, with Dolley Madison’s pink peppermint ice cream melting on top.


Gordon Mercer is past president and on the Board of Trustees of Pi Gamma Mu International Honor Society and professor emeritus at Western Carolina University. Marcia Gaines Mercer is a published author and columnist.