Monday, July 8, 2013

On Old Cookbooks

am a decent enough cook.  Here’s the peach tart I made for the Fourth of July this year:

I love to follow recipes, but am terrible at making things up as I go, which I think is the hallmark of a great cook.  Also, I’m lazy about buying tools.  But I do have a nice, big kitchen to work in, and since giving up wheat almost three years ago, I’ve had plenty of incentives to improve my skills.

I used to love looking through cookbooks, and I still do, but I’ve discovered a new fascination with quirky, almost-homemade, self-published cookbooks, especially from people (usually women) who live on farms.  I especially love them if they’re older.  I don’t necessarily make things from these cookbooks, but I love the glimpses into other lives and other eras.

Case in point: the recipe entitled “Greco,” from Make It Now—Bake It Later!, by Barbara Goodfellow, written (yes, written!  Like, in pen!) in 1958.  Described as “inexpensive and different!,” Greco is a casserole comprised of chopped onion, green pepper, 2 small cans of mushrooms (oy), shell macaroni, tomato sauce, a can of cream-style corn (oy again), and a pound of ground round.

First of all, I love that in 1958, this was “different.”  Also, I love that “macaroni” is an ingredient.  (Apparently, “pasta” as a catch-all term didn’t exist back then.)  And mushrooms in cans!  Creamed corn!
In my head, I’m imagining all the mid-century mothers getting this casserole together early in the day so they could exercise along with Jack LaLanne, pick up their husbands’ dry cleaning, and get to the ironing.  And it all takes place in black and white, and no one is actually poor, and everyone lives in the house that Wally and the Beave lived in, which is to say that I know I’m thinking in outdated stereotypes and I know 1958 wasn’t really like this.  But such is the fantasy occasioned by the cookbook.  Worth the fifty cents it cost me at a used-book store years ago.

Or consider MeMa’s Manna 2: Simply Easy, Budget-Wise Recipes.  (There was an earlier MeMa’s Manna, but the general store in which I found this one was sold out of it.)  Purchased in a small town in Missouri several years ago, it features recipes designed to help “young mothers and working people that are so busy.”  MeMa (aka Mary Boll) writes in the preface, “I grew up in the most wonderful time.  Life was slow, I was allowed to be a child.  We went to town on Saturday night.  No one was scared to walk around the square by themselves.  We never locked a door on the car or in the house.  We never heard of “pot” or drugs.  That was something to cook beans in, or medicine for a cold.”

I confess to finding MeMa’s recollections enchanting, if almost certainly selective.  I did not grow up in “the most wonderful time,” but I share her longing for safety and simplicity.  And I understand what she doesn’t quite say: that our memories of childhood are so often inextricably linked to the food made by someone who loved us.

Recipes in this collection are interspersed with sentimental verse and advice (“Be careful how you live.  You may be the only Bible some people read.”)  Most of these recipes aren’t for me (Jan Lewis’s “Easy Unusual Cake” contains “1 box angel food cake mix” and “1 can lemon pie filling, or any kind”), but I enjoyed reading them and remembering the little town where I bought the book.  There is indeed a town square.  It looked quite safe to my big-city eyes, but I saw it during the light of day.  Perhaps at night, it is crawling with crack heads.

My favorite self-published cookbook to date is Cooking Through the Decades: Authentic Recipes From the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, by Alice Kertesz (available on Kindle).  Part cookbook, part memoir, the book is a charming peek into Ms. Kertesz’s early life, which was spent in rural Wisconsin.  Her mother collected recipes from other farm wives, some of whom collected water from pumps on their back porches, cooked on wood stoves, and kept milk cool in their cellars because they didn’t have refrigerators. 

Many of the recipes in this collection were given to Ms. Kertesz by the farm wives with whom she lived when she was a young teacher.  In the thirties, apparently, teachers didn’t make enough money to live on their own, and apartments were nearly unknown in rural America.  Instead, young teachers stayed with farm families, often helping out in the kitchen after the school day was over. 

I was so charmed by this book’s stories, as I was by many of the recipes: Pineapple Pie, Prune Icebox Cookies, Radio Pudding (so named because radio technology was new and it was thought that the name gave the dish a certain modern cachet), Oatmeal Pie, Mrs. Eng’s Pastel Jelly Frosting, Ketchup Cake.  I tried the Caramel Layer Cake for the Fourth of July and it was a dismal failure (I screwed up the frosting), but I’ve made the Peanut Crunch Fudge Cake, and it was delicious.  (I haven’t gotten up the nerve to try Ketchup Cake, but I’m planning on it.)

As I was throwing the caramel frosting into the sink the other night, I thought about why I have put the effort into trying these recipes, some of which contain very vague instructions more appropriate to a wood stove than to my Kitchenaid.  My mother was an indifferent cook: she didn’t enjoy cooking and didn’t much care what she put on the table each night.  In this (and in much else), she was very different from Alice Kertesz, who loved cooking for her family and went to great lengths to perfect her skills. 

When I bake one of Alice’s cakes, I become the beneficiary of her expertise, her experiences, and, most of all, her memories: of threshing, of plucking duck feathers, of teaching in a one-room schoolhouse, of making the first dessert for her future husband (Chocolate Nautilus Rolls).  I feel connected to her and the way of life she once knew, which no longer exists in this country.  In short, I am trying to claim a family history for myself that is warmer and cozier than the one I have naturally inherited. 

Lest you feel sorry for me, consider this passage from Ms. Kertesz’s book, keeping in mind that she is of sturdy Midwestern stock and would undoubtedly look askance at anyone who might try to suggest she was poorly parented (or at anyone who would use the word “parented,” for that matter):

                I started baking cakes because I wanted a birthday cake so badly.  My mother never made me a cake and I never knew why my birthday was ignored.  I began looking at and collecting cake recipes as a young woman.
        I recall one incident that happened when I was in the third grade (must have been about 1927).  A girl named Lola Nelson came to school in a new dress and stockings, carryng a new lunch box.  She told the other kids, “This is the new dress I got for my birthday and these are my new stockings.  This is my new lunch box…”  She opened it and inside was a huge wedge of cake.  “This,” she said, holding up the cake, “is what’s left of my birthday cake.”  I remember especially envying her the delicious-looking cake.

My mother didn't know how to bake a cake from scratch, but she always made me one for my birthday. It was always chocolate and always lopsided. And I always loved it.

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