‘Love on a plate’
Published 5:10 pm Friday, March 17, 2023
WILMINGTON – Her physical presence is hundreds of miles away from her ancestral roots, but that fact failed to deter Elizabeth Mendonca from publishing a book full of family recipes passed down over several generations.
Mendonca, who lives in Wilmington with her husband, Ken, where she is an English teacher at Cape Fear Academy, recently released her cookbook entitled: “Butter, Size of an Egg.” The recipes are from five generations of women of her family, all hailing from Eastern North Carolina with most calling Jackson, Woodland, or Bertie County as home. The majority of her mother’s side of the family (Harrell) still resides in Jackson.
“Last April, my Granny, Susan Darden Harrell of Jackson, passed away at age 97. She taught me everything I know about cooking,” Mendonca said. “As a young girl, I often spent a couple of weeks with her each summer where I learned how to make biscuits without measuring – you’ll know when they look right; eating freshly preserved strawberries and grape jelly from grapes off the vine in her backyard, and diving into a homemade cake for my birthday, usually a joint celebration with my Aunt Dotty Bennett Harrell whose birthday fell one day before mine in July.”
Following the death of her grandmother Harrell, Mendonca said she took her boxes of recipes with the intention of transcribing them into a digital archive so her cousins could each have a copy of the things they fondly remember her making most often.
“I quickly discovered she had amassed a collection of more than 1,500 handwritten and typed recipe cards, way more than I could ever hope to copy,” Mendonca stated. “So I enlisted my mom’s help (Susan Harrell Jenkins Leuthold) to cull through and find the recipes the family made the most often. We cut our list way down, but my mom also remembered several dishes granny used to make for which there weren’t recipe cards.”
Mendonca said she reached out to a few of her second cousins and her Aunt, the now late Dixie Stanley Harrell, for help recruiting additional recipes from the family.
“We were not disappointed,” Mendonca exclaimed. “Everyone seemed thrilled to be involved and happy to send along some favorite recipes as well as some photos, news articles, and the stories of when these recipes were most frequently prepared.
“With this wealth of family history, I decided to look for ways to make a more formal collection so I could share it not only with my cousins, but all of the family who had helped and who remembered these women and their recipes,” Mendonca added.
She decided to organize the cookbook chronologically, starting with post Civil War recipes from her great great grandmother Susan Goodin Becton Yelverton Smith Dickinson and then passing through time to include her great grandmothers Esther Yelverton of Wilson and Mary Gurganus of Bethel, and her grandmothers Susan Harrell and Mary Jenkins. Recipes also came the siblings of grandmother Harrell: Esther Louise “Eza” Darden and Paul Darden Sr., both of Wilson, as well as from her mother and aunts, Dotty and Dixie Harrell.
“As is the habit with recipes, several mentioned in the books originated with some other ladies in town – most in Jackson – and from neighbors and school classmates’ families,” Mendonca said. “It is incredibly important to me to both pass along these recipes as well as the stories of the women. So much of our lives centers around food. I know in my family the preparation of food is tantamount to sharing love on a plate. There was no way I could not create this book as a way to remember and, more importantly, rejoice in the gifts of love and food that each of these women gave to my life.”
Mendonca noted that one of the most important things she noticed as she was collecting the recipe cards or from cookbooks passed down through the generations was the places where the spine was broken and the page was smudged, dirty, torn, with notes in the margin.
“If the page or card is dirty that means it sat on the counter a lot being cooked….those are the best recipes,” Mendonca stressed. “I also learned to trust myself, in terms of knowing when a dough or batter looks mixed well enough, or if something needs to cook just a little longer. The numbers written on the recipe card are great, but if your gut tells you it’s not quite right, go with your gut.
“I can remember my mom and granny sometimes getting frustrated that folks would congregate in the kitchen while they were trying to cook Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner, but in reality, everyone just wanted to be where the magic happens and some of our best stories and funniest memories were made in those moments,” she concluded.
Those wishing to purchase one of Mendonca’s cookbooks can visit https://www.blurb.com/b/11469850-butter-size-of-an-egg