Inspired by her 1927 Kitchen
Deco decor, vintage cookbooks, baking passion fuel Jolene's lively blog
Sometimes you meet someone for the first time and feel like you’ve known her forever. That was true of Jolene Handy, even though technically we’ve never met except on Zoom. I discovered Jolene’s blog, Time Travel Kitchen, months before we ever spoke. I was delighted when she decided to feature my mother Flora’s recipe for sour cream coffee cake on her blog a few months back.
With her passion for old cookbooks and baking, and her newsletter’s mix of recipes and personal history, Jolene felt like a kindred spirit. She often wrote about her vintage Chicago kitchen, after which she named her blog, and about New York, where she grew up.
We zoomed, against the backdrop of her galley kitchen with its lemon-patterned wallpaper and vintage-looking green clock (faux, she said, purchased for $14 on QVC, but you’d swear it was Bakelite!). She was getting a new computer, but meanwhile her iPhone was propped up on several cookbooks, including a favorite, a facsimile of the 1931 first edition of The Joy of Cooking.
You can find some highlights of our conversation below.
The Kitchen: Where it all began
After 40 years in Manhattan, Jolene moved to Chicago in 2016. Her brother Bill, an engineer who loved to cook, had decided to open an Italian restaurant called Torchio Pasta Bar. Jolene agreed to handle Instagram for the eatery, which has become very successful.
“When I came here, it was all new. I love Manhattan—it’s my home—but it was time for change,” she said. Anyway, for a New Yorker, it was an easy to move to make. I love Chicago, and being near Lake Michigan is a dream.”
In 2021, with her lease expiring, Jolene went looking for new digs. In a stroke of good fortune, she happened upon a spacious studio apartment in a building built in 1927 as a residential hotel for folks seeking a pied-à-terre along Chicago’s lakefront.
The building was undergoing renovation, and some renters wanted modernized units, but for Jolene, only vintage would do.
When she walked into the kitchen, it was like being hit by a thunderbolt.
“It felt like I was in my own little time machine. I was like, ‘I’ve got to write about this.’ ”
She moved into the building in February of 2021 and started the blog in March.
In the first issue, she talked about how she felt in her little kitchen when she pulled out the original built-in cutting board and imagined who had made the knife marks on it, what they were cooking, and when.
“Who were they? What did they make? How was life both different and the same 100 years ago?…I’m baking from the era with the help of history, muses and ghosts.”
New York roots
And what about Jolene’s own history?
Born in Brooklyn, the eldest of five and the only girl, she grew up on Long Island, then, after getting a degree in English at Saint Michael’s College in Vermont, moved to Manhattan— where she’d always dreamed of living—in 1976. After a series of jobs as an administrative assistant, including stints at CBS Records and BBDO Advertising, Jolene decided in her thirties to go to cooking school.
After that, her cooking career took off: An apprenticeship and later a job at Sarabeth’s Bakery; recipe testing for one of her teachers, Nick Malgieri, for one of his cookbooks, How to Bake; working in the test kitchen at Gourmet magazine with Sara Moulton, host of Sara’s Weeknight Meals on PBS.
Having also added a masters in counseling from NYU to her English degree, Jolene transitioned from cooking to counseling students in a culinary school and placing young chefs in New York restaurants. She visited the kitchens of many of the rising superstars of the 1990s restaurant scene: Marcus Samuelsson, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Daniel Boulud and the iconic wedding cake kitchen of the late Sylvia Weinstock among them.
“They wouldn’t remember me from Adam, but I sure remember them,” she said. “It was really cool.”
The Joy of Baking
Jolene’s true passion turned out to be baking—the central subject of her blog.
“I’m a decent cook, but I’m a much better baker,” she admits. “I was never as comfortable in the land of fire and knives as I was in the company of flour and whisks.”
Was there a baker in her family?
“My mother was a great cook, but she didn’t bake at all,” Jolene told me. “My grandmother was a terrible cook, and she baked all the time, and that was terrible too!”
Though no one baked, her parents, who grew up in Queens, “always knew where the best bakeries were….So we grew up with really good baked goods, but not made by anyone in the family.”
Her mother’s Swedish and German background informed her cooking, and from her father’s side, an Irish and English heritage also figured in.
As to why she loves baking so much, Jolene says she’s pondered the question herself and is acutely aware, as I am, of stereotypes linking women to baking. But during the pandemic, with so much we haven’t been able to control, baking filled a need, both for her and for many others.
“There’s something comforting about the measuring of the flour—even the sound. …I find it rather meditative. I like the precision of it, because outside of that, everything is not precise.”
Many of Jolene’s recipes reference beloved old cookbooks such as The Joy of Cooking and Fanny Farmer. Her collection is growing, but the 1931 edition of The Joy of Cooking by Irma Rombauer and the most recent 2019 edition by Rombauer’s great-grandson, John Becker, and his wife, Megan Scott, are two of her favorites. She writes about them in the second part of a 2-part series. Her vintage kitchen triggered her latest collecting obsession, she said.
“I kind of go back to the same ones a lot because the recipes work and taste good.”
She’s less a fan of some of the non-baked goods in the ancient volumes.
“One of the reasons why I have stuck to baking, besides the fact that I love it, is when you look at these old cookbooks, there are a lot of things like offal, tripe and veal loaf. I’m not poo-pooing them, but I didn’t think they would be so popular or photograph well.”
Cakes and cookies, on the other hand, especially in Jolene’s hands, photograph very well!
“Food is universal,” said Jolene in answer to my question about her inspiration for her blog—in addition to the 1927 kitchen.
“I could not be writing these small vignettes from my life if I didn’t have the anchor of food—and the photograph.”
The genesis of any post begins with a picture, she told me. Here’s one that knocked my socks off from her recent newsletter about a secret society of Chicago bakers that started during The Great Depression. Fellow Chicagoan and Substack writer Jennifer Billock (Kitchen Witch) wrote a book about them, and Jolene was intrigued.
Do check out all the stories on Jolene’s blog, including her latest on a heart-shaped Jell-O mold her mother used to make for Valentine’s Day and a Super Bowl competition between two desserts. It includes a link to a recipe she guest-posted about on Anne Byrn: Between the Layers (see Pink Champagne Cake above).
But the dessert I’m definitely making is inspired by her story about Duncan Hines, both the man—a traveling salesman and author—and his brownie mix, the first thing Jolene ever baked as a kid.
The story features a from-scratch recipe for Palmer House Brownies, but my husband, a confirmed chocoholic, has put in a request for the ones made from the mix. So now there’s a red box of Duncan Hines Dark Chocolate Fudge Brownie Mix sitting in the pantry awaiting its destiny.
Thanks again to Jolene for doing this interview and for featuring my mother and me on her blog. As she and I discussed, one day we’ll meet in person in Chicago, New York or L.A. and continue our discussion over coffee and cake. Meanwhile, I’m making those brownies…
See you next time!