Brown sugar alchemy

1 Photo. My sister holding a plate of chocolate chip cookies made from our grandmother’s recipe.

On Wednesday I found two 3 x 5 card boxes of my grandma’s recipes hiding behind a jumble of recipe books. My Aunt Janice was the recipe keeper before I borrowed them about 10 years ago; I have had them ever since.

These are the tasty relics of an earlier era: gum drop cookies. Turtles. Cranberry pudding with hot butter sauce. Oatmeal fudge nut bars. Divinity.

Scrawled in my grandmother’s cursive or rendered in compact type, the recipes are splattered with unknown food drippings. It feels sacred, almost esoteric, to hold the instructions for the concoctions that nourished my dad and his siblings.

Questing for my usual favorite chocolate chip cookie recipe, I decided to make my grandmother’s instead. They were meant to be bars. I made them into heaping spoonfuls of dough and christened several with pecan shards, to account for the unspecified “nuts” requested.

My dad’s face filled with astonishment when I revealed the cookie’s secret origins. He bought pecans and left them next to the chocolate chips, hoping someone would take the hint. “Pecans were the nut of the Pinborough household,” he said, a family factoid I never knew.

“These taste vintage!” Christiana exclaimed when she tasted them. And they did. Melted shortening and liberal brown sugar rendered these historic treats crackly on top and chewy within.

Reading about one of my grandmother’s recipes inspired my book on Mormon women’s material culture. My cousin Sarah made our grandma’s caramel cake for her dad’s birthday years ago and blogged about it.

Encountering the idea that women’s ways are handed down through objects (even as simple as a tiny slip of paper) and that these objects encode memories, prescriptions, and traditions about who women are and aspire to be, made me want to hear more about the heirlooms that shape women’s lives.

Every woman possesses the guidance of Women Who Went Before. She only need look for those encoded objects, the recipes and patterns and books and journals, hymns and traditions and poems. Even her own lungs and hands are a record. I loved dipping my spatula into my grandmother’s historic mixing bowl and conjuring a bit of brown sugar alchemy.


The recipe, if you’d like to try! Super simple. I halved it and it made 16 or so large cookies. Cook 12-14 minutes, still at 350.


Have you seen this incredible video? What a difference a bit of colorizing makes to feeling connected to the past. Making this recipe colored my life a little bit differently, adding a touch of crunch and flavor to my understanding of the past.

1 Photo


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