A splattered and tattered family history

A wedding present cookbook has captured the years in food smudges.

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My favorite cookbook was first published in 1896, and my copy could almost pass for a Fannie Farmer original. Its gold front cover fell off a couple of decades ago, and later the back cover bit the flour dust, too. Now the book is held together by plastic packaging tape.

Why don't I just throw it away and buy a new one – or look up recipes on the Internet? The answer is folded into its yellowed pages, dog-eared and stained with stray bits of egg white, flour, and shortening.

The story goes back to my wedding engagement, when my future mother-in-law plied me with questions about my homemaking intentions: What colors did I plan to use in decorating our home? What kind of cooking did my mother do? What did I intend to make for dinner on a typical evening?

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More interested in marriage than in homemaking at that point, I replied, "Oh, I don't know. Probably hamburgers or hot dogs."

"What about meatloaf?" she asked.

"Maybe when we have company," I said.

At a bridal shower someone gave me The Fannie Farmer Cookbook. (Maybe at the suggestion of my mother-in-law.)

"Oh, that's a good one," a friend remarked. "It has all the basic stuff."

Basic was what I needed. This book became my first course in cooking. With it I learned how to roast a turkey, make melt-in-your-mouth muffins, and mix a flaky pie crust – from scratch, of course. What I didn't appreciate at the time was that making things from scratch with all-natural ingredients, as everyone did in 1896 and for half a century afterward, is the easiest way to make a meal delicious.

My son will tell you that moist corn bread warm from the oven makes even hot-dog meals special. Pies made with just-cut rhubarb, I found, are bestsellers at town bake sales. And pizza made at home, with fresh tomatoes and herbs from the garden, beats even our favorite takeout. I've used those recipes so many times you can hardly read the print under some of the splotches.

The cookbook was useful for dredging up tasty, low-budget meals – such as Welsh rabbit, a meatless dish made with real Vermont cheddar – when we couldn't afford to eat out.

I also saved money by baking my own bread. Elastic and sweet with molasses, my husband's favorite oatmeal bread impressed even my mother-in-law.

Brown stains abound in the baking sections of the book. My children and I "decorated" the gingerbread cookie page making ornaments for our Christmas tree every year. (We still do.) The pages part easily at the pastry chapter.

When my daughter was 12, we used it to bake apple pies for a contest at the county fair. My daughter won the contest, but we can't give Fannie Farmer all the credit. When the local food columnist asked for her secret, she confided she'd added extra butter and sugar.

Here's why I haven't thrown this cookbook away, falling apart as it is: It's not just a cookbook anymore. It's a book of family history.

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