The Clara Project: On meeting Clara and Jan.

There’s probably a good reason why we don’t often ponder the way the universe works, the way that God or fate or karma or just plain dumb luck creates the connections that weave together the fabric of our lives. It’s all too mind-blowing to contemplate.

And yet, there are times when these destined connections smack us in the face, and we’re forced to consider the awesomeness of it all.

That happened last Wednesday, when I met Clara Shenefelt Williams and her daughter Jan.

For anyone just tuning in to our story, let me back up a little … Last August, I encountered a stack of vintage recipe cards in an antique store. The cards were beautiful, some of them hand-written, others printed. I couldn’t pass them up. I brought the bundle home, untied the fabric that held it together, and entered a world of cooking as it was in 1937 or so (when some of the cards were dated). Scratch cakes. Gelatin salads. Veal puff. Classic cookies. So many of these old-fashioned recipes are absolute gems.

At Rob’s suggestion, I began The Clara Project, a once-a-week posting where I choose a recipe from the stack, prepare it, and share it with any adjustments needed to update it for modern techniques and ingredients. Favorite recipes in The Clara Project have included Old-Fashioned Hot Fudge Pudding Cake and Potato Chip Cookies.

In June, I wrote a feature on the project for the Cincinnati Enquirer. It included a note that I hoped to connect with someone who knew Clara or her family. Serendipitously, after a friend alerted her to the story in the paper, Jan got in touch with me that very morning. Soon, we struck up a delightful exchange of e-mails that continues. She told me that Clara was soon to celebrate her 98th birthday. We decided we had to meet in person.

That happened last week. It felt more like a reunion than a first-time meeting. Clara and Jan are beautiful ladies, with big smiles, generous hearts and quick laughs. We had a delightful afternoon as Jan prompted Clara to recall events in her life. “I’ve had such a good life,” Clara said over and over. She spoke lovingly of her late husband, Roy. She was lively and present during the conversation.

We thumbed through her old recipes, and she said, “I’ll be darned” when she recognized her handwriting. In speaking with Jan, I discovered that Clara had been a good cook, took pride in preparing wholesome food for her family and could whip up a dinner party for 12 without breaking a sweat—though cooking wasn’t an all-consuming passion for her. She enjoyed sewing and needlework. She and Roy traveled well into their later years. And she patiently accompanied him on the fishing trips that he so loved, because she wanted to be with him.

Bryn & 'Clara' 1

I baked a batch of oatmeal cookies using a recipe from Clara’s collection. They seemed to be a big hit. (I’ll post that oatmeal cookie recipe this week.)



I’m not sure which of the three of us enjoyed the day more. It was a treasured experience—one of those times when lives intersect and people connect in ways that feel like they were supposed to happen.

It feels like there might be a book in here somewhere—a collection of favorite, old-fashioned recipes from Clara and from my grandmothers Ruth and Dorothy. A celebration of the way cooking used to be, with simpler ingredients and loving preparation.

What do you think? 

About The Clara Project
Once a week, I’ll make and share a recipe from a collection of vintage recipe cards that were written in the 1930s by Clara Shenefelt. See all the Clara Project recipes.

27 thoughts on “The Clara Project: On meeting Clara and Jan.

  1. Absolutely there’s a book in here! The picture that you have against the “About the Clara project” I think you should that. Include the how you met Clara, because that is a great story, the cards doing a full circle.

  2. You must make this into a cookbook with photos of the cards and including photos of Clara. Does her daughter have photos of her Mom from the era of the cards? So cool! I have loved this and have shared it with all my friends who cook.

  3. I think, my dear friend (as I’ve come to think of you) – You are on a journey of the heart and that is indeed a journey of a life-time. Dont hesitate – go forward and have the most magnificient feast of the soul and spirit in addition to good food and if along the way, you can put it down in words, we’ll feast along with you.

  4. I’ve followed the Clara Project from the beginning. What a lovely “final chapter” to this dear story!

  5. Dear Bryn — I know Jan and Claire her late husband Roy. You have stumbled upon the “cream of the crop.” I think we can learn much from Claire’s generation. Simple scratch cooking for working women. Please continue. Sincerely, Bev

  6. I’d buy that book and probably one for each of my sisters! Diane

    Sent from my iPhone

  7. Such a great story. Will make a great book. Saw a stack of old recipes (typed, not as personal a touch as Clara’s) last week in an antique shop and thought about buying them and doing a project like yours (w/o the blog!). I even told your story to the shop owner. Do consider a book. Maybe some of the proceeds could help a food type charity.

  8. Bryn –
    You have captured the essence of our meeting with your writing style. My friends have commented to me about what a wonderful idea it was for you to bake the cookies from my Mom’s recipe and take them to her — you have a real gift of sensitivity in addition to being a good cook & writer. What a joy this experience has been for us — my mom was really starting to get some of her old sparkle back as she talked to you. I look forward to our next encounter… possibly when I can give you copies of photos of Clara in the 1930’s for your book… 😉

  9. This says it all: ” It was a treasured experience—one of those times when lives intersect and people connect in ways that feel like they were supposed to happen.” Thank you fro bringing Clara, Jan and all those recipes to your readers. What I love most is this was facilitated by real PRINT newspaper story in tandem with a blog. Old and new, leading to social immortality!

  10. Thanks for all the kind comments, friends! I feel like we’re scooping up all of you and bringing you along on this interesting journey.

  11. Yes! Do the book. I’ve enjoyed the recipes, made several of them & have followed the tale of finding Clara with great interest.

  12. I think the book is a wonderful idea. In this day and age when quick, digital conversations are taking over, it would be a wonderful “grounding” experience to remind us all what is important in life.
    I would give it to friends who love to cook…and buy one for me!!

  13. What I love is that she acknowledged she had a good life. How wonderful to be able to say that. Clara and Jan seem to be such warm people – makes this whole experience a great journey for all. Thanks for sharing

  14. Dear Bryn, I’m so glad that I found your story on Yahoo news recently. What a treasure of an experience you 3 are having! Now I follow your blog which is fun, and I shared your “Clara Story” with my 85 year old mother who has some of her own & her mother’s recipes we enjoy. Please do take your inspirations to a book; it would be a keeper!

  15. Loved seeing pictures of your meet-up with Clara and Jan. I do think there’s a book here with the Clara Project as the jumping off point but including recipes from your grandmothers and other peoples’ grandmothers too, the idea being recipes from roughly the same period as Clara’s recipes. I still have a few recipes from my late grandmother, mother-in-law and mother that I would be happy to contribute.

    • Sondra, that’s such a cool idea! I’ve been thinking about ways to maybe get others involved in the project. I could post an open invitation for people to share their favorite family recipes, along with a photo of the original card or note. I could make the recipe, photograph it and post it here. And maybe those could be part of a potential book project, too … if that comes to pass.

      What do you think?

  16. Bryn…I love reading about your ongoing journey with the recipes and I especially love that you were able to connect with originator of the recipes. A book is a fantastic idea! I have some of my grandmother’s recipes — handwritten on index cards similar to Clara’s recipes — that I’d be happy to contribute.

  17. Hi Bryn!

    So being a journalist (“e”nquiring minds want to know!), I was wondering how her recipe cards wound up in an antique shop to begin with… Did she share that with you?

    Thanks! Stephanie

  18. I really enjoy the story of Clara and looked forward to each recipe. I do hope that a cookbook or book comes out. I would be very interested. Please continue with providing updates and recipes. Such a lovely story and I am so glad that you took the time to share. Thanks so much

  19. I’d love to do the photography if/when you decide to do that book. Love the story. Love the history of it all. Love the enchanting memories it conjures up. thank you from the bottom of my empty cookie dish!!!

  20. I guess I should see if I can find the relatives of the recipe cards I have in my box…. I found the pay stub of her husband in my antique recipe box…. Since its from Atlanta – it would be wonderful to find the relatives of the woman who wrote out all the recipes in my box… What a touching story…..I visit my stepson in Atlanta all the time…..

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  23. Found your beautiful blog and the Clara Project right after going through 5 boxes of my mother’s recipe cards. She’s 98 this year and hasn’t cooked for 10 years because of advancing Alzheimer’s. My favorites so far are mostly from the 60’s when many recipe names (at least the ones she collected) started with “Impossible” as in “Impossible Pineapple Pie”. One cherished one is an obviously well used card spaghetti sauce recipe from the early 1940’s when my mother was a young bride in NYC and she & my dad befriended a couple who had an Italian restaurant. The recipe comes from that restaurant and, frankly, I’ve never tasted a better sauce. However, that card reminded me mostly about the deep, lifelong friendship between the two couples. As I went through the cards, I read the names of my mother’s other friends as recipe sources and that sparked so many wonderful memories, mostly of those women. Thanks again.

    • Elaine, thank you for the comment! Food is such a connector, isn’t it? Glad you treasure your mom’s recipes.