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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?

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.

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