Recipe for nostalgia à la Mary Tam

LEAD - Peanut butter finger 570

[Alyson Kuhn] Mary Tam recently sold her home in the Chicago suburb of Wilmette, formally signaling the end of her homemaking career. She was, by all reports, a great cook. Her five grown children — and other family members and friends — are eager to have some of her recipes.


Christie Tam, one of Mary’s daughters, is a librarian and translator. Christie has gladly taken on the task of sorting through her mother’s file boxes and miscellaneous stacks and scraps. When she asked if I’d like to see the papery splendor, I about jumped for Almond Joy.


Christie has translated many cookbooks from German and French into English, and I assumed she planned to standardize selected recipes and convert them into a digital format. I was wrong. She reassured me that her ultimate goal was to retain every ounce of character by simply scanning them, so others can appreciate the handwriting and the ink, the different papers and period graphics, the kitchen stains — and the casual confidence with which Mary Tam and her contemporaries recorded their recipes.


Mary Tam also had a successful 40-year-plus career in real estate, first as an agent, then as a broker, and ultimately as proprietor of her own office. Recipes found their way onto many a notepad received from colleagues.


Recipes were also jotted down on envelopes, including the one above, mailed to Mary’s husband Gene. (The use of his “formal first name,” Galen, suggests the sender was probably not a personal friend.) We note with delight that the envelope was postmarked Normal, Ill.


The binder above featured an envelope in each section, for keeping recipe cards and newspaper clippings. Mary Tam apparently didn’t find this practical — not one of the envelopes has anything in it. Christie assures me her mother has always been able to find the recipe she’s looking for.
Christie and her siblings have used their mother’s recipes ever since leaving home — and many of those recipes came from other family members. Below are samples of Christie’s most recent batch of her mother’s fudge, served up on a plate from Great-aunt Winona.


Almost all the recipes are from ladies. However, Christie pulled out for my delectation a typewritten gem from Great-uncle Leo (husband of Winona). Leo started his career as a baking chemist for Nabisco; he is credited with the invention of the Lorna Doone Cookie and the Townhouse Cracker. He was also a gifted musician. His carefully typed letter (below), complete with strike-outs rather than erasures, begins with a lively analysis of the previous evening’s chamber music performance — Leo and several friends playing for their own pleasure. Then he segues to the recipe for “Lorne Doone Dessert,” with the dispensation “Can use Hekman’s Vanilla Wafers instead of the above cookies.” Leo’s finale fills me with delight: “I have used ‘onion skin’ paper as Winona’s greetings are HEAVY and mine are TOO! Love to all Leo.”


Read about Llewellyn “Leo” Cayvan’s musical legacy here and here. Christie Tam and her sister Charmaine will spend New Year’s Eve with 92-year-old Aunt Ruth, one of Mary Tam’s 11 siblings. They will finish off the fudge and enjoy their traditional eggnog with brandy.

Photos © 2011 John Hanford.

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Comments (11)

  1. Posted by Christie Tam on 12.22.11 at 10:45 am

    Thanks Alyson! It’s beautiful. I think I need to go cook something now…

  2. Posted by David A. Lottes on 12.22.11 at 11:12 am

    Thank you for the wonderful photographs and words about Mary! The information on “Leo” was also a treat. Great post!

  3. Posted by rowan magee on 12.22.11 at 1:01 pm

    How and when can I get a peak at the completed catalogue of scanned recipes?!

  4. Posted by Addison on 12.22.11 at 3:17 pm

    Lorna Doone cookies….Mmmmmmmm. A weakness of mine.

  5. Posted by Pam Williams on 12.22.11 at 4:21 pm

    A wonderful story … and the timing is perfect; with family coming in for the holidays, I just pulled out my Grandmother’s recipe for ‘Fantasy Fudge’. It looks an awful lot handwritten recipe card in the first photo!! So thank you!!! This post brings back warm holiday memories. Cheers!

  6. Posted by Sandi Bates on 12.22.11 at 4:42 pm

    This is wonderful. I do not cook but one thing I did keep from my parents’ home was the handwritten recipe cards and a recipe book project my older sister had made in third grade – something my mom had treasured all these years. How wonderful for you to share.

  7. Posted by John Peck on 12.22.11 at 5:05 pm

    Thank you for sharing more of the family history. I am fortunate to have eaten many of Mary’s recipes. Please let us know when your project is complete.

  8. Posted by Danna Gunther on 12.22.11 at 9:14 pm

    I have eaten many a delicious meal at Aunt Mary’s house. She has always loved to entertain, cook, and make others happy. Perhaps that is how we started calling her Auntie Mame!

  9. Posted by Jackie McAuliff on 12.22.11 at 10:09 pm

    What a wonderful nibble of history,family, and food. An eclectic and intriguing family makes me hungry to hear more. Variety in the food, variety in the paper, variety in writing,but of coarse variety is the spice of life!

  10. Posted by Kaaren and Hannah Peck on 12.24.11 at 10:49 am

    We just took a look at this and we love it! It is terrific to see the original format!

  11. Posted by Tina Lottes on 12.25.11 at 10:28 pm

    Very cool! Thanks for sharing. Loved learning these new things about the family. I love using the old family recipes. Can’t wait to see it when it’s all done!

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