Amy Choate-Nielsen: Unusual diary full of clues about Grandma

Published: Sunday, April 1 2012 4:13 p.m. MDT

As far as I know, my grandma Fleeta Choate never kept a journal.

It's ironic, because my father, her son, has always kept a journal and encouraged his children to keep journals, too. He writes about the weather, the things he did that day, what he wore — topics I used to think were mundane. But now as I try to get to know Fleeta, who died before I was born, those little details have become fascinating mysteries I want to solve.

I'd like to know what she did on a given day, what she wore, who she saw, how the weather was — if impending rain ever made her joints ache, for example.

But she never wrote those things down. Instead, she left clues about herself in another book: the Woman's Home Companion Cook Book. My father gave me Fleeta's copy of the Home Companion, circa 1951, after I told him I wanted to get to know her better.

The binding has broken and the pages are yellowed, but the book is crammed with Fleeta's fingerprints, so to speak.

Between the pages, she's stuffed newspaper clippings of old recipes, nutritional information, recipe cards and receipts. And in the margins she's scrawled recipe after recipe — most of them her own, I assume, because she gives credit on some of them, like "Bessie's raised doughnuts," and "Ruby's noodles," and "Loretha's cake."

The handwritten ones that weren't credited to someone else, simply labeled "Bar B Q" and "cracker jack" and "Southern corn pone," for example, must have been hers.

I already knew that Fleeta liked to cook (and rumor has it she made a killer divinity), but here are a few other things I learned about my grandmother and her generation while scouring her cookbook for clues.

First, she read the newspaper. By itself, that is important to me. Imagining her peeling through the pages of the morning's paper, coming across columns like mine, perhaps, and clipping out what interested her, captures the essence of my love for newspapers.

Second, looking at those clippings, I get a tiny glimpse into her world then. One article she clipped had a recipe for pear turnovers, but on the other side was a section of the personals from January, 1968, in Ada, Okla. That week, pantyhose were on sale for $1.35, a doctor and his wife went to attend a medical meeting in Chicago, and the town was getting ready to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the opening of the Cherokee Strip.

Other things about Fleeta's world were different from mine — for example, the equipment in her kitchen. There were enough ovens at the time that didn't have thermometers or heat regulators, so at the beginning of her cookbook, between the instructions on how to bake and fry, was a tip on how to tell how hot your oven is.

Sprinkle a teaspoon of flour on a sheet of brown paper and if the flour turns very dark brown in three minutes, then the oven is "very hot," above 450 degrees Fahrenheit, the book says. If it turns golden brown in five minutes, the oven is somewhere between 325 and 400 degrees.

For some reason, I never considered that modern ovens didn't always have thermostats, and that insight makes me think of her efforts in the kitchen as being all the more difficult and admirable. Still, I wonder — what was her oven like? Did she get to the point where she knew what temperature her oven was just by the blast of heat that hit her face when she opened the oven door? Could I?

There's more, like the diets and entertaining tips and the receipt from the electric skillet she bought in 1966 — tales for another day — but some of the most fascinating (and surprising) artifacts in the cookbook are her shopping lists.

There are two, both on pieces of scrap paper: a small white envelope and a "sorry we missed you" tag from the phone company. Each list has just a few items: spray starch, anchovies, pimentos, fresh tomatoes, olive oil, pepperoni, pecans, buttermilk and mushrooms. I assume she was making a pizza, from her own pizza dough recipe written in the back of her cookbook. And it looks like she had some ironing to do.

But as I read over those simple lists, trying to figure out what she was planning to make, amused that she used whatever was lying around and that she saved the lists after, I catch a glimpse of her on a busy morning, grabbing a piece of paper, jotting down a few things for dinner that night.

Those are moments nobody usually sees or takes a picture of, moments I have every day. Those are moments I don't usually include in my own journal, but they are far from mundane.

For my future granddaughters 60 years from now, they could be priceless.

Amy Choate-Nielsen is a full-time mom and part-time writer at the Deseret News. She spends her days at the park and her nights at the computer. In this column, she writes about family history and her quest to understand the mysteries of life while learning about her deceased grandmother, Fleeta.

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