Why my family treasures culinary heirlooms

Dec. 7, 2011 at 1:45 PM ET

Lizzie Stark /
My great grandmother's apple corer

Heirlooms remind us of where we came from, and culinary heirlooms, by their utility, forge a palpable link to that past.

A recent article shared the story of 83-year-old Wyoming woman Lucille Dumbrill and her 122-year-old sourdough starter. She first obtained the old dough from one of her husband’s students at the University of Wyoming, and that student’s family had traced the starter's history back to a sheepherder’s wagon. Lucille still makes pancakes with it frequently.

This got me thinking about the many culinary heirlooms within my own family. My grandma has a 149-year-old piece of cheese. As the story goes, in 1862 my grandmother’s 17-year-old great uncle was having a bite to eat with his family right before he left to join the Civil War as part of the Union army. The people giving him a ride showed up unexpectedly, and he left a piece of white farmer’s cheese on his plate. His sister — my grandma’s grandma — picked it up and saved it. It’s small, hard and desiccated, and my grandmother swears the moths have eaten a little of it over the years.

On my father’s side of the family, heirlooms often mean simple, practical tools from the past, saved for their evocative stories. Some people yearn for Camelot, but my father’s family dreams of the antediluvian paradise of the family farm, first situated in Lamberton, and later in Gibbon, Minn.

Lore of the farm reached biblical proportions thanks to the stories my grandma tells and retells around the holiday table; today, it lives on physically through the artifacts she has preserved. The tin bird cookie cutter that once belonged to my great-grandmother Anna has been bestowed on my Aunt Anne, who uses it to roll out sugar cookies and Moravian ginger cookies at Christmas time. My Aunt Katie has an old meat grinder, the one she remembers her mother screwing to an old kitchen chair and using to grind up dates for her favorite fruit-filled cookies. My father’s most valued heirloom is a set of tiny sherry glasses that comes from his step-grandmother.

“You put a little dessert wine in it, and when everyone else is drinking, you alone know the associations back from another time,” my father explained.

At my bridal shower two years ago, I opened the gift from my grandma — an embossed pink box that long ago held fancy French chocolates. Nestled inside on tissue paper, like a delicate necklace, lay an apple corer. Its stout aluminum barrel and pointed end, mottled gray with age, look more like an assault weapon suitable for staking a vampire than a kitchen tool. On a card, she’d written: “Dear Lizzie, This apple corer belonged to your great-grandmother, Anna Florence MacDougal Aufderheide, who was born in November 1879 in Delhi, Minnesota  … This heirloom apple corer was always in our kitchen cabinet when we lived on the farm and was used to prepare many a dessert for our family....” With it came a recipe for baked apples.

My grandma wasn't able to attend my bridal shower as she couldn't leave my grandpa, who was very ill. So when I saw the corer, I could feel her there in the room despite the long distance. I was delighted to have a piece of the family's past. While the corer is so old it doesn't drive into the apple as straight and true as it once did, it still makes a hell of a cavity for butter and sugar.

Tell us, do you have culinary heirlooms passed down from your family? What's the story behind them?

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Lizzie Stark is the author of the forthcoming "Leaving Mundania," a narrative nonfiction book about live-action role play. She once killed a sourdough starter reputedly kept by Emily Dickinson.