Family Stories: Heirloom Recipes


I originally posted Heirloom Recipes in 2014 on my blog 52 Week Ancestor Challenge. It was part of my 52 weekly family stories and my first time participating in this challenge. My story Heirloom Recipes was originally published in the Spring 2005 issue of Georgia Backroads… My first written paid article!

Heirloom Recipes – Family History comes in many forms

Take a walk with me down memory lane… back in your grandmother’s kitchen. Remember the comfort foods she cooked for you, prepared with a little of this and a little of that… no paper recipes, but they came out mouth watering every time. Whether you call them old-timey, heirloom, or just the family recipe, if you don’t record them now on paper, they will soon become a lost treasure!

As I prepared to write a family cookbook recently, I soon discovered that many of the family dishes I remembered when I was a young girl, were not in my recipe box. Those little boxes we have sitting on our kitchen counters were unknown to most of our grandmothers; handwritten recipes weren’t needed back then. My grandmother just knew how to cook, and cooked great Southern country food!

When I first asked my mother about recipes for some of Grandmamma’s cooking, her reply to me was, “my mother didn’t have any recipes and probably didn’t even know what a recipe was. She just knew how, and what to put together to cook the family food… my mother was a great cook.”

After tracing much of my family history from the small gold-mining town of Dahlonega, Georgia… nestled at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Lumpkin County… down to Greene County where I was born, I discovered a new form of family history – the family cooking. All too often we pass the recipe and memories from one generation to the next by word of mouth; a process well-meaning, but often becomes lost with each new generation.

My mother has always told me family stories about my Grandmamma Ola McKinley’s country cooking on their farm in Siloam, Greene Co. Ga. As I incorporated them into my family cookbook, “Cooking Memories”, I soon discovered that family history is much more than pedigree charts and information gleaned from library books. As you gather your family history and photographs, don’t overlook writing down the family recipes; they all blend together to form a true family history. For once memories and recipes are lost – they are gone forever!

Every family needs a storyteller, a caretaker of the family stories to pass down to the younger generations, but also someone to write those stories, memories and recipes of the family. My mother enjoyed telling the stories, while my love is writing them for preservation. When she talks, she always makes me feel like I was there, right alongside her. I can smell the blackberry pie sitting on the kitchen table, taste Grandmamma’s famous Southern Jam Cake and I can almost lick the frosting off my fingers from one of her tea cakes with icing. From those cooking memories gathered through Mama’s stories… I feel more connected in knowing my grandmother.

As my mother talked about our Southern Foods, I discovered much about my grandmother that I never knew, and I even learned that my Grandfather, Edgar McKinley, could cook a ‘mean’ pan of biscuits… when needed. It’s been the little things that I learned about them that truly brought them to life for me. I learned that Granddaddy liked strong coffee. Mama laughs at the strong part and said, “he liked it so strong that it could walk off the table by itself.” He always saved any extra coffee, and he and my mother would drink it cold, as they sat on the back stoop in the evening. Recently Mama saw me drinking ‘iced coffee’ and laughed saying, “you drink it just like my father did.” But the only difference is that I go to a coffee shop for my cold coffee!

I didn’t have the opportunity to truly know my Grandmother McKinley as well as I would have liked. But through the cooking memories, I now feel she has been brought to life and become more of a person to me, not just another name on a pedigree chart.

Grandmothers spent much time in their kitchens back then… no luxuries like we have today. The cooking was more personal, and what good cooking came out of those kitchens. Mama was amazed how her mother always knew exactly how many logs to put in the wood stove to cook everything to perfection.

My Grandmother McKinley was a hard working woman. It was a vicious circle from morning till evening, and without any complaints. Her day began early in the morning before the family rose. She was the first one up making the family breakfast, then off to work in the field, back before noon to prepare lunch, then again to the field and finally back to the kitchen to cook supper. Work never stopped for her; sometimes she even went back to the field after supper. My mother still says today that she doesn’t know where her mother pulled all her strength to do all she did.

Every family in the South has a favorite biscuit recipe passed down in the family, and as I sit here writing about the family biscuit… my mouth waters for one. I have no memory of my grandmother’s biscuits, only what I’ve been told, but I’ve learned enough about my grandmother’s biscuits to almost make me feel as if I once ate at her table. Grandmamma McKinley made sourdough biscuits… always saving a pinch of dough in a cup for the next batch; a special cup held the dough in the cabinet. When company came for Sunday dinner my mother always worried about the adults eating all the biscuits, leaving her none, but of course Grandmamma always made extra.

My mother learned how to make biscuits by watching her mother… exactly how recipes were passed down back then, but it still took much practice. Even after watching my mother make biscuits, I’m still practicing. My biscuits aren’t bad, but they’re not Mama’s! It’s the feel of the dough in your hands that you have to learn… that’s why they didn’t need recipes. But me, I still need my recipe and measuring cups… for most of the time. I’m thankful that my children have the knowledge and taste of knowing what a true Southern biscuit tastes like… their grandmother’s, my mother. And when we go home for a visit, the first thing they ask for is one of Angel’s biscuits; they have always called my mother by only one name… she’s their Angel.

Sunday dinner in the South was the best when I grew up… bowls and bowls of fresh vegetables from the family farm. We only ate fresh, as both my grandparents were farmers. I cannot ever remember my mother opening a can of vegetables. They came with a price though… my grandmother’s sat for hours on the front porch shelling beans and peas and shucking the many fresh ears of corn needed for Southern fried corn… my absolute favorite. And what work it is to cut the kernels off and scrape the cob for the milky juice needed for fresh cream-style corn. I loved when Granddaddy Bryan headed to the field with his worn-out leather satchel slung over his shoulder… I knew he was going to pick a ‘mess’ of corn for dinner.

A recipe that I had hoped to include in my cookbook was my Grandmother Evelyn Bryan’s Sweet Potato Cobbler, but there was no recipe. I was told what ingredients went in, and about how she prepared it, but I was left to devise my own recipe. Many of the foods I grew up with were not prepared from any type of written words… and I soon learned that most family recipes were not written down like today.

From knowing the about ingredients and remembering the taste, I soon began experimenting to develop a written recipe for my grandmother’s cobbler. I had memories of standing by her side many times as she made this simple Southern dish… and in closing my eyes I could see her preparing it. With those tools I was able to finally create that so-needed recipe. After many tries I finally had the taste I so remembered from my youth… a taste that reminded me of growing up Southern. Even though I now live in Connecticut, I will never forget my Southern roots, foods, and memories of “Growing up Southern.”

Grandmamma’s Sweet Potato Cobbler was a favorite of Granddaddy’s and mine… we could always count on one for dessert after Sunday dinner. Granddaddy Bryan grew many ‘taters so he always had plenty for his favorite cobbler. They were kept in his ‘tater hill’ after they cured, and dug out as needed. My grandfather was very particular about his cobbler… always buying cow butter from his brother. He would not use store bought butter in his cobbler. I dug up all his ‘taters one year when I was young… in thinking I was helping him. I couldn’t understand why they had to be buried if you were going to use them!

Sunday dinner at my grandparent’s, Paul & Evelyn Bryan, was often eaten on the screened-in back porch of their home in Union Point, Ga. I always scrambled to make sure I sat next to my grandfather, and we were usually the first at the table waiting for that ice-filled glass of sweet tea, and if he put a slice of lemon in his…I did the same.

From the cooking memories I have written from my mother’s stories, I have more of a connection in now understanding the cooks… my grandmothers. Writing my family cookbook brought me more family history on my grandparents than I ever imagined. I began to know them through my mother’s eyes, years before I was born, and more things than any book could ever tell me.

If you have the opportunity, take some time and record the family recipes, because they truly are your family treasures. If you feel like heading into the kitchen to whip something up,  maybe you might want to try my Sweet Potato Cobbler.


Sweet Potato Cobbler

5 – 6  medium sweet potatoes (9 x 13 pan)

1 cup sugar (+ more if needed)

Nutmeg  (optional – to your taste)

Cinnamon  (to your taste – I generally only use cinnamon)

1 stick butter

Pastry dough (or 1-2 boxes Pillsbury dairy dough)

2 cups (abt) boiling water

Peel sweet potatoes and slice thin, abt. 1/4-inch. Make a pie dough or use the Pillsbury dough in dairy… which I use. Some cobblers have dough on the bottom and some don’t… it’s your choice. I make it both ways. I use a 9 x 13 inch pan.

If using a bottom crust, add to a buttered pan. You can use a solid crust or make lattice strips. Lay sliced sweet potatoes on bottom crust. I lay a thicker layer of potatoes on the bottom and also lay slices around the sides. Sprinkle with 1/3 of the sugar, 1/3 of the butter chipped up and spices if desired. I go light on the Nutmeg unless you like it more. I do sprinkle cinnamon, but not heavy.

Cut strips of dough and lay lattice style over the potatoes. Add a 2nd layer of sweet potatoes, 1/3-cup sugar and another 1/3 of the butter chipped up and another light sprinkle of cinnamon. Continue again for a 3rd layer in same way.

Pour boiling water over all (I pour slowly on the side so it goes to bottom and not all over everything)… fill up the baking dish about halfway with water… judge with the 2 cups. Lay another layer of dough on top… either lattice-style or whole with slits cut. Lightly sprinkle a little sugar and spices on top also, if desired.

Bake 350 oven for about 1 hour… until brown & bubbly and potatoes soft when checked with a knife. Don’t overcook to mush! Check several times to see if cobbler is too dry. If too dry, add a little more water as needed, slowly pouring on the side. Let sit a little before cutting (if you can) so the juices absorb. The smell from your oven will be amazing!

Note: The directions can be cut down for a smaller cobbler… also works well cooked in a deep pie dish using smaller amounts.


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To read Conversations with Mama, click Here

© 2020, copyright Jeanne Bryan Insalaco; all rights reserved

About Jeanne Bryan Insalaco

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This entry was posted in Daily Writings and funnies..., Family Recipes and Memories, Family Stories and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Family Stories: Heirloom Recipes

  1. ReginaMary says:

    Great stuff, Jeanne!!

    Liked by 1 person

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