25 July 2011

Calling out my Non-Cooking Cousin: Laura’s Gingerbread

When I launched this blog, I made sure interested parties—relatives, friends, and featured cooks—would see it. My cousin, an amazing teacher, enthusiastic thespian, and voracious reader, emailed me to say, “I saw your earlier post about the recipe blog. It's a wonderful idea, but I'm sure not much of a cook.” Be that as it may, she’s not wholly absent from the recipe box. At some point, even she sent along a recipe, probably enclosed in one of her long newsy letters. Her name isn’t on it, but to paraphrase the March family's servant Hannah, “I'd know which those handwriting letters belonged to, ef I see 'em in Chiny."

Chris and her Aunt Betsy exchanged letters regularly; my cousin’s were often on repurposed paper, with something else typed or scrawled on the back. Even though the letters were not addressed to me, I always loved reading them for their descriptive, vivid, and full-of-personality anecdotes and musings. I remember one Christmastime letter with a phrase like “basking in the glow of piles of post-present wrapping paper” or some such. Betsy and Christine had a singular relationship; my mother was only twenty and in college when her first niece came along, and they were always close and in touch. My mom often recounted Chris’ adventures, observations, or tart comments with pleasure and amusement. When I look at my cousin today, I see some of the contours of my mother’s face—if I look like Bets in one genetic direction, Chris resembles her in another.

In her early 20s, Christine actually moved out from Indiana to live in the Boston area for two or three years. She lifeguarded at the Hyde Park YMCA and we saw her frequently. She even took me for the weekend one time. We swam at the Y pool, meandered through downtown Boston, and shopped at Quincy Market (where I was in raptures over a red satin heart pillow and unicorn shoelaces I bought at the now-defunct Have-a-Heart shop). We had a sleepover and I got to stay up and watch The Love Boat and the even more risqué Fantasy Island.

Chris married a Hemingway-reading art teacher, artist, and writer; they have two boys, now young men. She is a GREAT boy mom—she not only goes to Gen Con willingly, she puts on a costume to boot. After years of teaching in the Indianapolis school system, my cousin left the classroom in order to run a non-profit acting company for kids.

With all this in mind, Chris’ recipe contribution is more than apt. It's on a folded slip of paper, not a recipe card, and annotated in her quirky, distinctive hand (“We got this in Kiddie Lit”). It's timely too, given the recent publication of Wendy McClure’s The Wilder Life.

Laura’s Gingerbread

(from The Horn Book, December 1953)

1 c. brown sugar blended with

½ c. lard or other shortening

1 c. molasses mixed well with above

2 tsp. soda in 1 c. boiling water (be sure cup is full after foam runs off)

Mix all the above well.

To 3 c. of flour add 1 tsp. each: ginger, cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg,

cloves, ½ tsp. salt

Sift all into sugar/lard mixture and mix well.

Add 2 well-beaten eggs. Mixture will be thin.

Pour into greased and floured 9 x 13 and bake in moderate oven (350˚)

30 minutes.

Raisins or candied fruit may be added if desired.

Note: if a more dominant ginger flavor is desired, double the amount of ginger and omit the other spices

I love the chain of transmission here: Laura’s original recipe, reprinted in The Horn Book in 1953, was typed onto a piece of paper and mimeographed in purple (can’t you just smell the fresh wet ink?), given out in a university children’s lit class, sent to my mother through the U.S. Postal service and now blogged electronically some twenty-odd years later. Food itself is a transient pleasure, but this list of ingredients and directions persists, and in increasingly contemporary forms.

Funny the things that outlast us.


  1. This is perfect timing, J.R. I just finished the book "A Wilder Life" in which the writer tries to recreate Laura's life and her fondness for the Little House series by cooking from the books and traveling around the midwest. Thanks for the starter recipe!

    I'm so glad you're blogging, I love this.

  2. Oh my goodness I hadn't thought about Have-a-Heart in YEARS! And I totally forgotten about those shoelaces...what a fun thing to remember.

  3. Hi Ang & Michaela ~ Little did I know how much residual nostalgia would end up here! Ang--there is a Little House Cookbook from the 1950s (probably the original source of this recipe).

  4. Aw, Jennie. Went through several tissues reading this....

    And alack and alas for hand-written, hand-typed letters...

  5. Dear KPCL ~

    I am so glad you liked it. I was FUN to write--and to stumble upon that recipe.