Grandma and the Family Recipes
Grandma McGrew was born Zelma Leila Lenon on May 28, 1903 in Tunnel Hill, Illinois, located in the very southernmost county in the state. Her birth was months before the Wright brothers flew the first airplane and a year before Lee DeForest invented the vacuum tube and with it, electronics.
The world she was born into was little different for most people than it was from their ancestors a millennium earlier. Horses, wagons, boats, and feet were their only forms of transportation except for the very rich, who had trains. Automobiles were brand new and prohibitively expensive for all but the richest, and far slower and less useful than a horse; basically, they were very expensive toys. In 1903, most people never traveled farther than fifty miles from their birthplaces in their entire lives.
Homes were heated and food was cooked with wood and coal as they were ten centuries earlier. The homes were built by hand, as they had been a thousand years earlier, because there were no power tools outside a waterwheel sawmill. Telephones were only in a few large businesses and very few rich people’s houses.
Grandma was eight when she saw her first airplane. When I mentioned this to my mother not long ago, she was amazed—airplanes were still very rare when she was young in the nineteen thirties. When she was a child and an airplane was heard, everyone ran outside to see it, so imagine the spectacle of seeing an airplane flying only eight years after the first flight!
She lived half her life without seeing a contrail, because before the nineteen fifties there were no commercial jets, so no contrails. Today you can’t look at the sky on a sunny day without seeing them.
When Grandma was seventeen, she bemoaned the absence of eligible bachelors in the tiny rural town to her sister.
“What about that feller?” her sister said, pointing out the window at a dirty and bedraggled young man walking down the dusty dirt road.
Grandma wasn’t impressed.
But the next Saturday she met him at a dance, all cleaned up; he had been on his way home from work when she’d seen him earlier. His name was William McGrew, and they fell in love and were soon married. Nine months later my oldest uncle on Dad’s side, Daniel, or “Dangerous Dan”, was born, followed by Robert, William, and my dad, Thomas.
Grandpa was born in 1894 and was drafted towards the end of World War One, served a time in France, and returned to civilian life when his hitch was up, not long before he met Grandma.
I learned a lot of early twentieth century history from Grandma, history she had seen unfold first-hand. Some of it contradicts the history books. I’ll take her word over books, she lived through it.
Racism was terrible, and she said Gypsies and Jews were almost as hated and feared as blacks when she was young.
The history books all talk of the “roaring twenties”, but Grandma said they didn’t roar for most people. Like our early twenty first century, the wealthy were better off than ever and business boomed, but most people had it as hard as they had ever had. If you didn’t grow a garden you were going to go hungry. When you got a hole in your clothing you didn’t replace it, you sewed it back up.
There are books galore about the Great Depression, but she didn’t talk much about those times. I doubt they were memorable to many who lived through them.
Unlike those before her, she and Grandpa did travel, because during the depression work was scarce but automobiles were affordable for most. They lived in southern Missouri, Chicago, and in Granite City and Madison. When I was born, Grandpa worked for Purina in Hamel, Illinois and they had a small fifteen acre farm nearby.
In World War Two, Dan joined the Navy, Bob joined the Merchant Marine, and Bill was drafted into the Army. Bill was there at Normandy Beach on D-day, and he never talked to anybody about the war later, until he mentioned shooting a man point-blank in a “kill or be killed” situation, to Grandma, on his deathbed. Dad was still a teenager in World War Two.
Uncle Dan’s ship had been hit in a battle and he was injured. While in the hospital he met a man who had lost a leg in combat. The two went into business making prosthetics and became rich. Grandma said he “was born an old man.”
After his hitch in the Merchant Marine was up, Bob enlisted in the Air Force and made it his career. Dad joined the Army paratroopers hoping to go to Korea, but was stationed in Kentucky instead. I was born at the Army hospital there. When his hitch was up he worked at a bank for a while, and later became an electrical lineman.
Grandma and Grandpa had the small farm I mentioned above, with pigs, bovines, chickens, a mule, a large garden, and a dog named Shadrack. Grandpa worked at the grain elevator. Grandma did most of the gardening, but Grandpa took care of the animals, milking the cow every morning before work, and feeding them, and shoveling manure and feeding them again after work, and plowing the garden with a mule and an old fashioned plow.
The only indoor plumbing was a line from the cistern to the kitchen sink, so there was, of course, an outhouse rather than a bathroom.
I would visit them for a couple of weeks every summer. I loved it! So much to do and see and learn! Ever tasted raw milk, straight from the cow? Grandpa would squirt it over his shoulder at me, and we both laughed uproariously, especially when I caught some. Have you ever plucked chickens and shucked corn? Actually, I really didn’t like plucking chickens, plucking chickens burns your hands.
Grandma was deeply religious, and often read the Bible to me when I was small. One of my most prized possessions is a Bible she gave me in the late 1970s, a very nice and expensive leather-bound gold leaf red letter King James Bible that her sister (Buelah, I think, but I wouldn’t swear to it) had given her for her birthday. She gave it to me because, she said, she didn’t like the smell of new leather. I suspect she was just too attached to her old Bible, which was held together with electrical tape.
Grandpa had a horrible industrial accident in 1959 and never spoke or moved again, dying a decade later in a nursing home after Grandma could no longer care for him. The accident would not have happened if they’d had today’s regulations.
My dad built an addition to the house after Grandpa’s accident and they lived there for a few years before moving to a government-subsidized apartment in Madison. They were there when Grandpa was moved to the nursing home.
About a decade after Grandpa died, Grandma met Charles “Chuck” Persinger, a widower, in church. They were married, and he died of cancer about a decade later.
She went from living in a time without airplanes to seeing two men land on the moon and walk around, and rode commercial flights on more than one occasion. Born before electronics or radio, she watched Lawrence Welk every week on television. Born when practically no one had cars, she never learned to drive, but Grandpa had his pickup truck.
Five doctors told her that if she didn’t get her cholesterol down she would die. She outlived all of them, dying in Poplar Bluff, Missouri, in 2003 at the age of ninety nine after falling and breaking her hip.
The Lenon family holds a reunion in southern Illinois every year. In the nineteen sixties and seventies, they got together to make a family cookbook. Everyone (well, a lot of folks) donated recipes for the book, The Lenon Family Cookbook. That’s what the family called it, but the cover simply said “Cook Book” and “Favorite recipes from our best cooks”. I’ve had my copy ever since then, and am now publishing those recipes again.
This is not a recreation of the original book, but it follows closely and I tried to improve it. Although you can’t copyright recipes, there is much in that cookbook that could be copyrighted, and the publisher claims copyright. I’ve completely replaced the things that may fall under copyright; the herb guide and “where to look in the Bible” are two examples.
The company that originally published it published cookbooks for churches and other organizations, and except for the recipes they were all the same. The Herb Guide, for instance, covered herbs not used in the cookbook and omitted ones that were used. In this version, it covers all the ones used in these recipes and only those, and there is far more information in this version. The old cookbook’s herb guide was two pages long, this one is over twenty pages.
Wikipedia has a use license that allows you to use the content, and I have. I urge you to contribute to them. Much of the editorial content was copied word for word from Wikipedia, as was most of the herb guide, although I have edited it fairly heavily. A couple dozen photos are ones I took of ingredients at Humphrey’s Market, and the photos of fudge that I bought there, but the rest are from Wikipedia except for the photo of “Party pink divinity”, which Megan Markam emailed to me. I should add that you should not expect your finished dishes to look like the illustrations because they’re not photos of the exact recipes shown, including the Party Pink divinity.
The “ingredients substitution” section has a few obsolete items dropped, and some important ones added, and all has been re-worded.
Some of the original book is not in this one because its inclusion in a book is no longer necessary, such as conversions to metric and back. These days we have smart phones that can tell us things like that.
Grandma hadn’t submitted any recipes to the original book, but she had a shoe box stuffed with recipes. She gave it to me when she was in her nineties and living with my dad. Most of the recipes in the box were newspaper clippings, but there were some written in her handwriting, and I included them. The recipe for polk wasn’t written down, she told me that one verbally and my family ate a lot of polk afterwards, as we were pretty poor at the time. I also added a couple of my own recipes, under my name.
I have also edited the recipes for various reasons, starting with readability. Many if not most recipes everywhere omit words like “the”, “an”, and so forth, and I have added them back in. Some recipes were a little hard to understand, so I moved words around or changed them to more precise terms. I do understand that using incomplete sentences is how recipes have been written forever, but it grates on a writer’s nerves. I also fixed the typos and misspellings I found in some of the recipes. I hope I haven’t added new ones!
Of course, ever since people started writing recipes down they have been sharing them. A few of these look home-grown, but at least one came from a magazine and I’m pretty sure many of them came from a box or bag of ingredients, especially the ones that say “Spry”, “Mazola”, and so forth. Most folks copy recipes verbatim. If you see a brand name in any recipe anywhere, it’s nearly certain that it was originally from a corporation or an older recipe that they changed the generic name for the product to their brand name.
With very few exceptions, like the ones where one brand is unique, like Velveeta cheese or 7-Up, I have removed brand names. Many brands have gone out of business or have been sold. Some had their recipes changed; one recipe in the original book called for Tostitos. When the recipe was originally written, Tostitos were likely the only tortilla chips on the market, and they have since changed the manufacture and recipe of those chips. One recipe called for Spry, which I had never heard of and had to google. It turned out to be a brand of vegetable shortening and the brand has changed hands several times and may not even be made any more.
A few recipes called for Bisquick. I’ve changed “Bisquick” to the generic substitute for that brand; you already have them in your kitchen but may not have the commercial substitute for those ingredients, so you can save a trip to the store. It’s also cheaper to make your own “Bisquick”. I’m certain that when you see “Bisquick”, that company probably originated the recipe or changed an older recipe.
One recipe was named after its brand of product when any similar product will do, and the original may not even be available these days. It was certainly one of the recipes that were originally from some soulless corporation, so I added some soul by renaming it to the submitter’s name. I do not want this cookbook to be a bunch of advertisements for commercial products.
No matter what brand of margarine Grandma was using, she called it “Oleo”, which is Latin for “oil”. Many of the recipes called for oleo, but in fact the dictionary now says that oleo is “another name for margarine.” A little research taught me that Oleo was the original brand of margarine, which is another reason for editing—consistency. Some recipes call for “melted butter” and some said, Yoda-like, or perhaps like military bureaucracy, “butter, melted”. I’ve changed the military Yoda terminology to the plainer English and “oleo” to “margarine”.
Some recipes call for canned goods, but sixty five years of eating has taught me that fresh or frozen food is almost always far superior to canned. I grew up thinking I didn’t like peas, and when I finally tasted fresh peas I found I loved them; Mom had always made canned. So where the original book said “1 no. 303 can pineapple” I changed it to “two cups pineapple”. After all, someone in Hawaii where you can get fresh pineapple might read this, and in the store where I took the pictures, whole pineapples were for sale. When a recipe called for two eight ounce packages of something I changed it to simply sixteen ounces.
I was surprised to see so many cans in these recipes, because both my sets of grandparents had big gardens, as I did when my children were growing up. Fresh is better! It tastes better and is healthier. Frozen is almost as good, and canned is almost always vastly inferior. Alas, some recipes say “1 can” without giving the can size. There are an awful lot of them, so I left most of those as-is; you’ll have to guess what size can to buy that fits the one teaspoon of salt.
I also added a table of can sizes to this book in case you run across a recipe elsewhere that gives a can size instead of a more traditional measure.
The original cookbook had many recipes spanning two pages. I have avoided that; when you’re cooking or baking you don’t want to turn a page, so I’ve structured this book so that only a couple of recipes span two pages, and that’s only because they’re simply too long to fit on a single page. I was able to structure them so that they’re on two facing pages, so you still won’t have to turn pages.
Some recipes call for “butter or margarine”. I have left these as they were, although butter and margarine don’t taste the same. When given a choice, choose butter. Margarine’s molecules are one atom away from being plastic. Butter tastes better. However, since butter and margarine aren’t identical, if it only says “margarine” don’t use butter unless it’s all you have.
Some of these recipes are vague on amounts, and that fits Grandma perfectly. I never saw her measure when she cooked, not even when she was teaching someone else to cook, but it was always delicious. An example was “1 large can”. How large? On one occasion I made an educated guess, but could be wrong.
When I was eight and in the Cub Scouts, my troop had a baking contest. There were over a hundred kids in the contest. Grandma McGrew helped, only by telling me what to do. Part of the recipe was a box cake, with extra ingredients to the cake and Grandma’s chocolate icing recipe, which is probably in this book under someone else’s name.
When I finished baking, the other kids were already in the vacant field behind Roger’s house playing baseball. I grabbed my glove and joined in; Roger’s mom was doing his baking for him. I don’t remember but I’m sure we had fun; after all, there were no grownups.
The baking contest was that night. Fathers were the judges, but couldn’t sample their son’s baking and had to vote for a different, uh, pastry? I don’t know. But I won.
Of course, Grandma coached me! The thing about box cakes with extras? You’ll see it here. It’s a family thing.
My win had controversy, because “Grandma helped him” and the accusation was actually made that Grandma really baked it, like Roger’s mom did for him. That one angered me. There was also grumbling that I’d used a box cake.
Dad and I each sampled a slice after we got home. “This really is better than anything else at the contest!” he said. I agreed that it was good, but his mom was the brains of it. Grandma could cook and bake, and apparently it runs in the family.
A couple of these old recipes call for a coffee can, originated when coffee came in metal cans rather than the modern plastic cans, which is a bit of a problem. The only suggestion I have is a big #10 restaurant can; if you’re a regular in a local restaurant they might give you an empty one. One calls for putting the plastic lid on until the dough rises enough to pop it off, and I’m not sure how you can get around that, unless you have an old metal coffee can. I just found one in my kitchen holding drill bits and a chuck. Check your attic, basement, and garage!
Many of the ingredients may also be very difficult to obtain. Lard, for instance. I hadn’t seen lard since I was a little kid in the 1950s until I was shopping in a very old grocery store, originally opened in 1932, and they were selling their own brand of lard in quart containers. It’s available there now as I write this (there’s a photo of it in this book), but they’re the exception.
Sorghum is another one. I don’t think I’ve seen it in a store and haven’t seen it used since I was small. But these are old recipes, some of them truly ancient. One recipe author mentioned that she got it from her mother way back in 1915, so it might have been at least as old as the civil war and probably older. Recipes get passed down from generation to generation.
City folks might consider many of these recipes “soul food”, but what the city slickers call “soul food” is simply good country cooking. I love hush puppies, especially with fried catfish (which I unfortunately don’t have a recipe for, although there is at least one recipe for fish batter in this book).
However, it isn’t just country cooking or even American cooking, because there are recipes from all over the world.
This book is in loving memory of those who volunteered recipes who are no longer with us, and with thanks to the rest who contributed.
May 13, 2017, added to later
While searching the internet for “Lenon family reunion” in hopes of finding someone in the family who could spread the word that I’m looking for more family recipes and republishing the old ones, I was saddened greatly by news in the Southern Illinoisian that “LouEmma Smith, who orchestrated the Lenon Family Reunions for more than twenty five years”, and someone I had met a couple decades ago at two reunions, had passed away this year at age ninety five.
Many of her recipes live on in this book.
I hope the reunions continue and I can attend another. I’ll have books to give away! If you see this and are descended from the Lenons, I’m looking for recipes and want to attend a future reunion. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
November 16, 2017
From the original cookbook:
“The Lenon family wishes to thank all who have helped in the preparation of this cook book by way of sharing their favorite recipes with us. We hope that everyone has as much fun using it as we have had putting it together for you.
“We have endeavored to combine the practical with the unusual in order to provide an outstanding book of favorite foods that will be treasured and enjoyed by all.”