Golden State: Recipes and Memory

Amanda Elise Herbert and Annette Elise Herbert

Alzheimer's disease, artwork. Credit: Florence Winterflood. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)
Alzheimer’s disease, artwork. Florence Winterflood. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0), Wellcome Collection.

How do recipes make memories, and how do we remember the methods, ingredients, and techniques that go into making a dish, a piece of technology, a work of art, a scientific method? Memory is a powerful force, capable of sustaining a story, instructions, or guidelines over generations. It’s also unpredictable, malleable, incomplete, manufactured.

For the next two months, February and March 2021, we will be exploring recipes and memory at The Recipes Project. In this series we’re delighted to feature and amplify many writers who are new to the RP, and who are bringing their own work on recipes and memory to us in a rich variety of formats and media. Some contributors ask us to absorb, learn, and listen: Ozoz Sokoh will share her work on memory and foods of the West African diaspora; Stephanie Shiflett will explore starvation in sixteenth-century France; Simon Newman will write of recipes created during the Holocaust. And some contributors ask us to join and participate: Heather Ariyeh will invite readers to share their own memories of beans and rice via a memory of twentieth-century Guatemala.

Describing his childhood in Zambia, poet Kayo Chingonyi has said that he “uses the writing as a way of reconstructing that place from memory.” For Chingonyi, sharing memory – whether in writing, like his poetry, or in visual art, or sound, or taste – is generative. “Something new,” he says, “is created by the experience of sharing.”

Inspired by Chingonyi’s own ideas about memory, art, and community, I’m proud to be co-editing “Recipes and Memory” with my mother, Annette Herbert. To launch the series, here is our own post about our family’s history with a sugar factory in Northern California. Like sugar, this recipe and its memory are sweet: they tell a story about resilience, love, devotion. And like sugar, this recipe and its memory hold the potential for erasure, elision, and, if you’re not careful, rot. 

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Our family migrated to California as part of a gold rush. We weren’t drawn in 1849 by precious metals, but arrived fifty years later, pulled into the new state by sticky, golden sugar. We have a family recipe that proves it.

Recipe for California Date Bars. Image courtesy of the authors.
Image courtesy of the authors.

My name is Amanda Elise Herbert. I remember this story this way. My mother, Annette Brown Herbert, told it to me; my grandmother, Doris Ahlgrim Brown, told it to me. Two brothers, both in their teens, were born in Prussia. They were pacifists and didn’t want to be conscripted into the Kaiser’s army. They signed up to work on a cargo ship and traveled halfway around the world. When the boat docked in Crockett California, the smell of burned sugar filled the air, for Crockett was home to the famous California and Hawaii (C&H) Sugar Company. Fearing that violence would meet them if they returned to Prussia, they escaped from the ship, hid until it steamed away, and found jobs at C&H. Two years later they’d saved enough money to bring their baby sister and their parents to California. The family settled and grew. They soaked in the sunshine. They hiked in the Sierras. And the baby sister created a recipe to commemorate their new life: California Date Bars, packed with golden brown C&H sugar.

Brown sugar. Image courtesy of the authors.
Image courtesy of the authors.

My name is Annette Brown Herbert. I remember this story this way. My mother, Doris Ahlgrim Brown, told it to me; my aunt, Dorothy Ahlgrim Young, told it to me. Anna Schuetz immigrated from Danzig with her parents when she was twenty. They left a married sister, named Clara, behind. Clara wanted to come, but she was married and her husband was unkind to her. Anna’s older brothers had left East Prussia to avoid conscription into the Kaiser’s army. They arrived in San Francisco, jumped ship, and then made their way to Crockett, where they worked at the C&H Sugar factory. They eventually sent for their parents and sister. When they weren’t working at the factory, the two brothers would go fishing down the hill, on the piers at the Bay’s waterfront, and when it was time to come home, their mother would wave a dish towel at them from the front door.

Eggs. Image courtesy of the authors.
Image courtesy of the authors.

My name is Dorothy Ahlgrim Young. I remember the story this way. My twin sister, Doris Ahlgrim Brown, learned it with me. Our grandmother Anna Schuetz immigrated from Danzig around 1888. She traveled with her parents to Crockett, California, where her brothers had settled in order to avoid conscription into the Kaiser’s army. Upon arrival she began working as a seamstress and upstairs maid for the Hooper Family, owners of the Hooper Candy Company. Her talented fingers made trousseaus for each Hooper daughter. Anna married a man named Charles Drewicke, who worked at C&H Sugar. While in Crockett, Anna and Charles had three children: Irwin, Doris, and Arnold. Anna was not a good cook. She would bake pfefferkuchen at Christmastime, cut in diamond shapes with a piece of candied citrine or a sliver of almond on top. But she often burned them, passing this off by saying “they’re just a little brown.” Anna’s daughter, our mother Doris Drewicke Ahlgrim, was an excellent cook. She would make California Date Bars for us and our friends when we went hiking in the summer.

Walnuts. Image courtesy of the authors.
Image courtesy of the authors.

The historical record – itself manufactured, smoothed out, cut and pasted – tells a different story. Census data, voter registration records, and death certificates show that a woman named Annie Schuetz and her parents arrived in California in 1892. None of them could read or write or speak English. Their names were misreported by an impatient census-taker in 1900, who labeled Annie’s mother “Wilhemina Wilhelm” when he couldn’t understand her German speech. Members of the family did not work at C&H; that company didn’t begin operations until 1921. Instead they were described as laborers: factory laborers, warehouse laborers. Annie’s father was still working full-time at the age of sixty-nine. Illness, death, and financial mismanagement saw a widowed Annie Schuetz Drewicke and her children living in a rented house in San Francisco by 1920, where all of the members of the family were “working for wages or on own account, not salaried.” 

Spices.
Image courtesy of the authors.

Our knowledge of the past, recovered with care and hard work and difficulty by scholars of modern history, offers further nuance. The sugarcane that fed C&H’s refinery was grown on land stolen from the Kanaka ʻŌiwi; the refinery itself stood on the land of the Karkin and Muwekma. Working conditions in sugarcane fields in Hawaii, on cargo ships across the Pacific, and in factories in California, were dangerous and dehumanizing. Annie Schuetz Drewicke and her daughter Doris Drewicke Ahlgrim had only just earned the right to vote when the census-taker visited their lodging house in 1920 to take account of them. 

Dates. Image courtesy of the authors.
Image courtesy of the authors.

Thousands of miles apart, in our kitchens in California and Maryland, we make the California Date Bars. We miss each other. The pandemic has meant that this is the longest we’ve ever been apart. We read the recipe off of screens. It’s been carefully and lovingly scanned and sent to us by Auntie Dorothy. It’s in Doris Drewicke Ahlgrim’s hand. The directions are sparse, and we talk about implied and implicit knowledge. We make guesses. We talk about memory. The recipe looks good, but it also seems cloyingly sweet. We add more salt.

California Walnut Date Bars on tea towel with California poppies. Image courtesy of the authors.
Image courtesy of the authors.

7 Replies to “Golden State: Recipes and Memory”

  1. Thanks for sharing. I recently created a video about my grandmother “Mima’s” (Leonora Topazio) marinara and meatballs recipe, which was passed down from her grandmother. Your post adds so much historical context that I want to reshoot the video now.

  2. What a wonderful piece. I love the way you make familial remembering so central to the story of recipe transmission. And although I am a historian your story tells me that memories, flawed and inconsistent though they may be, are just as important as historical facts and records. History is what we remember it to be. And the date bars sound wonderful!

  3. Thank you, Simon! And they are actually very, very good — fluffy and gooey and perfect with a coffee or cup of tea.

  4. Very touching and beautifully written. This story is a good reminder of how important and special it is to capture family memories and history.

  5. Wonderful, ladies. A courageous and hard working start for your family in America. Would love the recipe!!

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