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Focus on Agriculture

For the week of March 26, 2012

Finding Lost Recipes

By Stewart Truelsen

One of the world’s oldest recipe books was written around 1390 by chefs in the court of King Richard II. Among the dishes fit for an English king was a frumenty or porridge made with bulgur wheat, chicken stock and saffron.

A favorite treat was payn puff, which consisted of boiled fruits wrapped in a pastry. This medieval cookbook, written in Middle English and called the Forme of Cury, contained no measures of ingredients or instructions.

Since then, treasured recipes have been collected and passed down through generations of restaurant chefs and family cooks. However, many have been lost, misplaced or are gathering dust on pantry shelves.

Finding lost recipes is a passion for Monica Kass Rogers, a Chicago food writer with an interest in food history.

“Everybody has a recipe that they miss,” she said, “whether that’s a restaurant that closed, or maybe the aunt who was the family recipe keeper died, and you never got the recipe for Aunt Sylvia’s meatloaf.”

An assignment for a Chicago newspaper got Rogers started helping people connect with the recipes they missed most. One lady longed for a meat dish served at her elementary school cafeteria in Florida. Rogers tracked down the school’s recipe for potato turbate, seasoned ground beef between layers of whipped potatoes. She even updated the old recipe by adding a few more vegetables.

Her biggest find has to be a recipe for rum cake from a bakery in Austin, Texas, that closed 50 years ago. No one could duplicate the buttery-sweet flavor until Rogers found  the secret—submerge the whole cake in butter-rum syrup while it’s still warm.

She also has a category of lost recipes that she calls “once upon a box.” These are recipes that were printed on food boxes and other containers from companies like Nestle and Pillsbury. As a journalist, she is as interested in the story behind the recipe as she is in the recipe itself.

“It’s not just the exact recipe that people are after, it’s the memory of everything that went with it,” she said.

Rogers is not the only one taking such an interest in America’s vintage recipes and food past. The Southern Foodways Alliance, a non-profit group based at the University of Mississippi, is documenting and celebrating the diverse food cultures of the South.

Interest in vintage recipes is even spreading to a few popular chefs, she noted. These chefs are particularly interested in recipes that predate canned goods and convenience foods. Some of these early recipes are found in community and church recipe books, including those printed during the 1920s by a grassroots organization, Farm Bureau.

Rogers’ goal is to make her website (www.lostrecipesfound.com) more interactive. She wants to turn it into a national forum for people to locate lost recipes by dialoging with others who may have old cookbook collections of their own. She also plans to add audio and video capability to share stories of recipes found.

There is indeed a story behind every lost recipe found and a common theme that food is often part of our fondest memories.


Stewart Truelsen is a regular contributor to the Focus on Agriculture series and is the author of a book marking the American Farm Bureau Federation’s 90th anniversary, Forward Farm Bureau.