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The Family Cookbook as an Ancestral Treasure
By James W. Petty, AG, CG SM

Mmmm. So how do you think you’ll cook the turkey this year? Mary thought it over, and said, “I really like the method we’ve used in the past; brining the whole turkey in a solution of kosher salt water for 24 hours before preparing it for the oven. That creates a delicious taste in both the white meat and the dark meat. But you know I’d like to see if we can find your mother’s recipe – her holiday birds were always so tender and tasty. Don’t we have her cookbook somewhere?

I had recently inherited my mother’s green dog-eared “recipe” book. I pulled it off the bookshelf, and began mentally feasting through some of the delicious treats it held. “Look! We could make “Aunt Min’s Sour Cream Cake”, or “Aunt Ruth Richardson’s Angel Custard Delight!” And here’s “Grandma Petty’s Swedish Pudding!”

Suddenly I stopped. “Aunt Min?” “Aunt Ruth Richardson?” “Grandma Petty?” This wasn’t the Grandma Petty I knew; this was the Grandma Petty my Dad knew, my Great Grandmother, Ann Elizabeth Beers Petty. I looked closer at this treasure of a book.”Grandma Ann Eames’ Johnny Cake”; “Grandma Agnes Winter’s Olde Fashioned Chocolate Cake”; “Aunt Laura Stephens’ Irish Brown Sugar Factory”, until we finally came to “Grandma Annie’s Turkey”. I realized as I read through page after page of luscious menus, that this wasn’t just a was a volume of family genealogy; a book of gastronomical family history relating how our family entertained themselves when the holidays rolled around. “Aunt Hazel Vaughn’s Apple Dumplings!” Why, I’m the genealogist in the family and I didn’t know who “Aunt Hazel Vaughn” was, until I dug into my family history files and found that she was one of my Grandpa Winter’s dozen siblings.

Mary and I had so much fun reading through Mom’s 60-year-old cookbook and relating stories that we had heard or remembered about the authors of these family meals. I especially remembered Great Grandma Annie Beers Petty, who died when I was a little boy. I remember her well because at the age of eight, I was bigger than she was (age 86)! She made me feel “big,” which was important to a “little” kid. I remembered that she had a big nose, and droopy ears, and as many wrinkles as a dog that belonged to my friend, but my parents assured me that there was a time when she was so lovely, that she swept my great grandfather, Willie, off his feet, and he loved her for over sixty five years until she died. What a thrill it was for me to find her in this special book of our epicurean roots.

This was such a delightful and heart-warming experience that Mary and I decided to extend it to the rest of our family during the holidays. We sent out an email message to everyone who was coming to our house for Thanksgiving this year, asking for a favorite family recipe and a story about the ancestral cook to share with us for dinner. The response was wonderful; with many family members relaying delicious recipes of their past along with memories of loved ones. These and many more will be shared with our family in holidays to come.

And as an added bonus, for our Christmas present this year, we are preparing a special notebook with the stories and recipes included along with pictures of our inspiring ancestors and their delectable dishes. As new stories and recipes are discovered and gathered, copies of the new pages will be sent out to be added to each person’s growing volume of ancestry and favorite family foods.

Can you imagine how much can be felt for an ancestor when a happy memory of that person is shared along with a dessert or meal that they used to make? It’s fabulous! We encourage everyone to enjoy the holidays this year by sharing the recipes and stories of your ancestors with your families.

Here are a few stories and recipes from our special volume of Petty Pride Epicurean Roots -Merry Christmas. Enjoy!

My princess, Melissa R sent:

I thought about it last night and the one food item that sticks out in my head is fresh-made orange juice with oranges pulled off the trees in Grandma Wilda’s front yard in Downey , California . She always had great food, but I think it was the fact that she woke up in the morning and took the time to squeeze us a cup of sweet OJ when we were little kids. I always felt so special, like a princess with my own orange trees and fresh juice when we stayed at her house. That was Grandma, even the most simple item on the table was home made, took a little bit of her time and was an act of love.

My daughter-in love, Emily, shared this about her “ancestor”

The recipe I have for you is one of my mother’s… date cookies. I have always loved when my mom made these…I think it’s the only way my mom could get me to eat dates as a child. She usually made them around the holidays, although they are delicious any time of the year. I remember helping her roll out the dough, which was my favorite part since I could steal the dough easier without her noticing. She would always make the date mixture since it was hot but then she’d let me roll the dough up and then she’d cut it. I would always steal a few cookies before she cooked them. These cookies are really good even raw. Nobody else really wanted to help her make these, so I always volunteered. I think it’s was because I could get more cookies than anyone else if I did. It could be considered a tool of survival. Since I was the youngest I had to wait until my older siblings stopped pushing me around to get a cookie. I guess you could say that I learned to cook to survive my siblings.

Date Cookies
From Penny Taylor

Ingredients for Dough

  • 1 cup shortening
  • 2 cups brown sugar
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 teaspoon soda (dissolve in warm water)
  • 4 cups flour
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon

Ingredients for date mixture

  • 1 pound dates
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 3/4 cup water
  • 1/2 cup chopped nuts

Mix sugar and shortening together, add eggs, soda dissolved in warm water. Add flour, salt, and cinnamon. Let set in fridge for at least 2 hours. Cook date mixture and set aside. Roll out dough and spread date mixture. Roll up like jelly roll. Freeze and bake when needed. Bake at 350 degrees for 12-15 minutes…or until they look almost done. They will continue cooking after you take them out of the oven.

Cousin Sarah wrote:

Thanksgiving and Christmas time have always been a huge time for baking for me. When I was young, my mom, sister, and I would start the big bake around Thanksgiving time in preparation for the gifts that we would be sending to friends and family for Christmas, since they all lived so far away. We would try out a new recipe every other year or so, so people didn’t get bored with the gifts. We did banana bread, cookies of all sorts, and home made candies; but by far, the most popular was the caramel corn. I am not exactly sure where this recipe came from, or if it was handed down to my mom…but this is our one special family recipe. Even if you don’t like popcorn or caramel corn, you do become addicted. We make caramel corn every year starting at around Thanksgiving and until the New Year begins. Here is the recipe.

Caramel Corn ala Mom (Tamara)


  • 1 cup unpopped popcorn
  • (or about 2 bags of unpopped popcorn that can be cooked in a microwave)
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 3/4 cup packed brown sugar
  • 6 tablespoons butter
  • 3 tablespoons light corn syrup
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract


  1. Preheat oven to 300 degrees F (150 degrees C).
  2. In a large pot, heat oil over high heat. Add the unpopped popcorn. Moving the pan constantly, pop the corn. Remove from heat, place in a large baking pan, and keep warm in the preheated oven. Discard unpopped kernels.
  3. Mix sugar, butter, corn syrup, and salt into a large saucepan. Cook over medium heat, stirring until mixture starts to boil. Continue cooking for 5 minutes without stirring.
  4. Remove from heat. Stir in baking soda and vanilla. Pour over the popped popcorn. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes in the preheated oven, stirring every 10 minutes. Remove from pan and put into a large bowl to cool.

My son-in-love, Stathi responded:

My mom was a great cook and she occasionally cooked Greek food. I don’t want people to get the impression that Greek is all we ever ate. Actually, the converse is true. It was quite a rare occurrence. She made great tiropita and spanikopita. A funny story centers around a soup called mayiritsa. This is a Greek Easter tradition. The soup is made from basically “everything else” from the lamb. (Eyeballs, brains, guts, etc.) I have NEVER tried mayiritsa and I’m sure I never will. However, a couple of times when I was a kid, she made it for Greek Easter and encouraged my neighborhood friends to try it. Some of them did and actually liked it. She tried to goad me into it, but it never happened.

From a Thanksgiving perspective, there are some funny stories. I never really liked Thanksgiving dinner when I was a kid. My thoughts were “if we were trying to be thankful for something, why weren’t we eating something good like pizza instead of food I hated like turkey, yams, and cranberries”. (I like Thanksgiving food now – just not as a kid) My brother and I basically ate the marshmallows off the candied yams and called it a day. Also, my parents strongly preferred the dark meat of the turkey to the white. Now that I’m older, I like the white better. I think that is one reason I didn’t like turkey as a kid – she always dished us up the dark meat.

I remember one Thanksgiving, when I was a teenager, my mom made mashed potatoes and gravy. I liked brown gravy, but not turkey gravy. She knew this and told me she would make me a special batch of brown gravy. Well…she gave me turkey gravy and told me it was brown gravy with yellow food coloring. She said she wanted it to at least LOOK traditional. I told her, “Mom – I’m 16 years old and top of my class. Nice try – that might have worked when I was 6.” She laughed hard and it was something we joked about until she died.

Uncle Eric added his memory and recipe:

Subject: Mother Helen’s cranberry salad – the woman and the mystery behind the dessert

Not caring much for this concoction as a kid, Mother Helen’s cranberry salad has been a fixture for years now .

The cranberry, so I’m told, has been cultivated from the bogs of New England, which, interestingly, is from where many of my father’s ancestors hail ( New England , that is – not bogs!). Yet, with walnuts and oranges (peels and all) in this salad, I simply can’t figure out how this evolved (“…for mother is dead, you see.”)

A graduate of the Humboldt State Teachers College in Eureka , California , my mother, Helen Genevieve Wood/Roberts taught elementary school for years and years in California before retiring in Oceanside where she lived but for a few years before succumbing to cancer at the age of 67 or 68.

A descendant of early Californians who supported Upton “The Jungle” Sinclair for governor, she spent long hours outside gardening among her fat, smiling Buddhas and delicate wind chimes. I found that agronomy has deep roots (no pun intended) in my ancestry. Though her mother’s name was Cora Ellen Cobb, she insisted on being known as “Mother Ceres,” and never as “grandmother,” or, heaven forbid, “grandma.” It wasn’t until years later that I discovered that “Ceres” was the goddess of the harvest.

Grandma/Mother Helen was particularly fond of pomegranates, artichokes, and citrus, so that the addition of whole, ground-up oranges might have had multicultural origins there among Grandma Helen’s large oriental gardens of herbs and spices of the early California ’60’s.

At Thanksgiving (and sometimes Christmas), I can recall my father getting out the hand crank screw/crusher to begin the gruesome but delightfully red process of grinding store-bought cranberries from who-knows-where with the tartest, tangiest oranges from one of trees in our back yard in Downey, California.

I readily volunteered my brawn to turn the crank for pulverizing these items into red-and-orange gooey paste which would soon be added to the Pyrex dish containing hot cherry Jell-O, and then followed by walnuts, and celery. To consummate its preparation, it was then popped into a refrigerator that was already busting at the seams so that it could be served chilled and pronounced edible.

But for me, that usually was the closest I ever got to the stuff – unless my mother had determined that it was time for me to “try it again” as a generous manifestation on my plate. Back then Mother Helen’s Cranberry Salad was treated much more like a dinner salad than a dessert, being served with the main course on a leaf of iceberg lettuce and a dollop of mayonnaise. At Christmas, the red and green ambience was genuinely highlighted by the salad’s native festive appeal.

But cranberries and whole oranges?!??

Recipe: Mother Helen’s Cranberry Salad

Prepare Jell-O and put in a bowl:

  • 2 Big Boxes of Sugar-Free Jell-O (Cherry and/or Raspberry)
  • 2 Cups boiling water
  • 2 Cups cold water

Prepare other ingredients using food processor (mozzarella cheese grater blade to mulch) and add to Jell-O mixture:

  • 1 12 oz bag cranberry
  • 2-4 really sour oranges

    Take the zest off and put in the final mixture
    Peel the oranges

  • 2-4 apples
  • 4 stalks of celery

Chop by hand and add to Jell-O mixture:
1-2 Cups of Walnuts or pecans,

Chill and let mixture set overnight.

Thanksgiving Day – Add Whipping Cream on the top

Use heavy whipping cream and vanilla – no sugar

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