Visiting my Grandma this August, I decided it was high time I learned how to make her red raspberry ice cream. It has been a staple of our family reunions in New Hampshire for years (and the key ingredient to many late night cousin talks and general merrymaking.) It is also my absolute, hands down, favorite ice cream in the world.
I knew where the raspberries came from, had spent an afternoon or two picking the bushes up the hill as a kid, but had never seen her make it before. I didn’t even know where the recipe came from. But one day I finally convince her I’m serious about making it and she plops the blue book in my hand: “Ice Cream Desserts For Every Occasion.” It is a relic from a bygone era of housewifedom. It opens: “Does ever a day go by that the homemaker doesn’t ask herself, ‘What shall I make for dessert?’, or, ‘How can I serve and dress up my frozen dessert?'”. Umm, yes, every moment of my life up until now…
Inside is a series of what used to be blank pages now covered in handwritten notes (mostly my Grandma’s) that span 70 years. An anthropologist’s gold mine.
I discover my great-Grandma Tozzer’s handwriting from 1938. She has written down two recipes. The first is for lemon ice cream. “For Dewey” it says in parenthesis but, it seems, this “Dewey” was the only one ever to like it because I don’t see it or him mentioned anywhere since then. The next is for raspberry ice cream, which, if I am to go by the notations alone in this book, has been made every summer since 1967 and probably 5 or 8 times a summer with batches as large as 39 quarts (Summer ’97). I think, poor Dewey, lost the race.
I had always thought all that ice cream just lived in my Grandma’s big freezer in the laundry room but, studying her notes, I realize she has had quite the supply circuit. Summer of ’96 there is a checklist for 27 people. By ’99, there is a yogurt option instead of just ice cream and friends to supply in Boston. And it’s not only for ice cream. Next to “Mary” there is a note to add “purple beans” to her order. “Frank and Carol” get a quart and a casserole. And, starting in 1990, everyone is getting “+ br” next to their quarts: brownies (except for “Arlene C,” who has a note that reads: “Veggies prefers them, no sweets.”).
And then there are the names of people who have now come and gone from my Grandma’s life: “Clarinda,” “E. Flaccus,” “Grandma Toz.”.
I recognize Clarinda as the friend my Grandma traveled to Alaska with by train from Arizona. Her suitcase never arrived so the train outfitted her until a car showed up honking along the tracks near the Columbia River with it. She asked me one morning if I saw the cemetery Clarinda’s buried in on my hike. It’s just off the path as you cut through some farm land to the woods. I hadn’t seen it.
“E. Flaccus” is the man “all my children thought I’d marry.” His name was Ed. “Did you want to?” “No,” she told me. I remember Ed too. He once went with my Grandma on a trip to the Yucatan and we leant him our video camera. He got the power on/off button mixed up so all the video is of his backpack (you can see the Maya ruins for a moment when he takes it out to start filming). My strongest memory though is of this blueberry pie that he made. He died shortly thereafter from cancer, and I remember my 8-year old self trying to understand how a man could die but you could still eat his pie.
The earliest note from my Grandma, and the closest thing to an actual recipe I find, dates 8/1/67 and reads: “11 qts. of Rasp = 5 1/2 R. juice + 11 pts cream (1/2 heavy + 1/2 light) = 14 qts. ice cream.” And the ingredients seem to change throughout. Some years, it includes evaporated milk; another year, lemon juice and vanilla. And apparently the amount of sugar you use “depends on the acidity of the fruit.” (I later find out that most of the recipe is just in her head along with our family friend and jack-of-all-trades neighbor, Willie.)
But what I love most are the little bursts of detail you get in her notations: 7/15/75: “picked right after rain – single row – far right -“…8/11/80: “Best ever – good strong taste”…7/26/85: “10 qts = 4 juice – very dry year”…7/22/86: “4 bags ice, used 3. It was cold out.”…9/21/90: “1 c sugar not enough”…8/11/92: “could be sweeter.”
By 2000, Willy starts to make the notations more and more: 8/3/06: “12:15pm 83 degrees cloudy. 17 1/2 qts. Last batch slow + bumpy.” And you really feel for him on 8/1/01: “Slow machine. Large eating party.”
The last note is from 8/20/08, just before my Grandma turned 87: “52 degrees clear 18 1/2 quarts.” The past three years we’ve been eating the yields of her and Willie’s efforts from that summer and I haven’t noticed. I didn’t notice until I went to the freezer this month, couldn’t find it, and was pretty much halfway inside of it searching, when my Mom broke the news that Grandma had stopped making her ice cream.
I have noticed her getting older, of course. But it didn’t really hit me until the empty freezer how long ago those changes must have started and how they all added up to an ending I could now feel was real: my Grandma will not always be here.
There is a deep, unspeakable sadness in knowing that the ones you love with not always be with you. But there is a beauty to this life cycle too: my Grandma hands me this recipe book and I make my first batch in 2011. Here is my notation: 8/17/11: “12 1/2 qts. total in 3 batches. Sunny. Grandma says ‘delicious’ and giving pint to Mrs. Hodges.”
Oh, and in case you wanted the recipe, try this: