My Mother’s Cookbook

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My mother had only one cookbook, a thick school scribbler where, before her wedding, she recorded over four hundred recipes. Since boiling potatoes and preparing the roast or frying the pork chops or opening a tin of salmon on Fridays were all things she could already do, what she figured she needed were dessert recipes for her new husband and for the church bazaars and bridge parties she hoped to attend. And so, using her best teacher script, she wrote out instructions for cakes, icings, cookies, squares, pies, puddings, quick breads and candies. Here are Aunt Jessie’s Lemon Bread, Gum Drop Fruit Cake and Mrs. Turner’s Matrimonial Cake – all rich and sweet in a world unconcerned with calories, trans fats or bad carbs. It was 1938.

By the time I was a teenager, I wanted her to expand her repertoire with new things, cool things like Pineapple Dream Whip Cheesecake, but not in her house. It’s no coincidence that her recipe book looked just like her prayer book – black with red print on the cover, and tattered and interlaced, not with prayer cards, but with recipes clipped from the paper or sent by friends or scribbled on the backs of envelopes. Her prayer book lived with her rosary in a little drawer in the living room; her cookbook in a little drawer in the kitchen table, and both represented The Way Things Were. To me, they embodied her maddening insistence on Doing Things Right and Sticking To The Old Ways which, in her mind, were one and the same.

But now I no longer think new is necessarily better. I also understand that this book contains more than just antiquated rules and ideas. Now I see that it’s a quiet little window into a bygone life. Through it, I see how hard she worked cooking on a stove with only two burners, including the oven, with no refrigerator and no freezer and no pizzas to order on busy days. I also see how hard she tried to do what society expected of proper wives and mothers of the time; devoting herself to church and home, especially to her kitchen where the path to a man’s heart lay.

Her cookbook also reflects the self-sufficiency of her Irish and German grandparents who settled in Ontario in the 19th century. Besides cooking all the meals, these women, like all pioneer women, made the family’s wine and home remedies. And so, at the back of my mother’s cookbook are recipes for Edna’s Fig Wine and for Dandelion Wine. There’s also a remedy for rheumatism involving turpentine, another for asthma requiring three hundred brewed porcupine quills, another for hair tonic and one for hand lotion. The only two I remember her making were the Dandelion Wine – a terrible brown stew that sat in a crock in the bathtub smelling really bad until she finally pitched it out – and the Hand Lotion. It too was awful – the feel of mucous, the colour of mice and the smell of the old perfumes she always added to give it a certain something – but her friends raved about it. Anyone who praised it got a bottle, but they didn’t get the recipe.

I wonder what my mother would think if she knew I keep her cookbook on my kitchen shelf alongside new ones for vegetarian quiches and Southeast Asian curries and Mexican dishes, books that call for things she never even heard of – jalapenos, tahini, balsamic vinegar, Dijon mustard, garam masala, even sour cream. And so, although I’ll never make Edna’s Fig Wine, my mother’s book is a reminder of the knowledge, history, pride and unsung hard work of women like her. The added jumble of recipes from friends and relatives reminds me of women’s generosity, vivid evidence of women looking after each other, passing on their knowledge from woman to woman, sister to sister, mother to daughter, friend to friend. Most importantly, it reminds me that women like my mother were doing something I finally understand is enormously important – making food for the people we love.

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  • My mother had only one cookbook, a thick school scribbler where, before her wedding, she recorded over four hundred recipes. Since boiling potatoes and preparing the roast or frying the pork chops or opening a tin of salmon on Fridays were all things she could already do, what she figured she needed were dessert recipes for her new husband and for the church bazaars and bridge parties she hoped to attend. And so, using her best teacher script, she wrote out instructions for cakes, icings, cookies, squares, pies, puddings, quick breads and candies. Here are Aunt Jessie’s Lemon Bread, Gum Drop Fruit Cake and Mrs. Turner’s Matrimonial Cake – all rich and sweet in a world unconcerned with calories, trans fats or bad carbs. It was 1938.

    By the time I was a teenager, I wanted her to expand her repertoire with new things, cool things like Pineapple Dream Whip Cheesecake, but not in her house. It’s no coincidence that her recipe book looked just like her prayer book – black with red print on the cover, and tattered and interlaced, not with prayer cards, but with recipes clipped from the paper or sent by friends or scribbled on the backs of envelopes. Her prayer book lived with her rosary in a little drawer in the living room; her cookbook in a little drawer in the kitchen table, and both represented The Way Things Were. To me, they embodied her maddening insistence on Doing Things Right and Sticking To The Old Ways which, in her mind, were one and the same.

    But now I no longer think new is necessarily better. I also understand that this book contains more than just antiquated rules and ideas. Now I see that it’s a quiet little window into a bygone life. Through it, I see how hard she worked cooking on a stove with only two burners, including the oven, with no refrigerator and no freezer and no pizzas to order on busy days. I also see how hard she tried to do what society expected of proper wives and mothers of the time; devoting herself to church and home, especially to her kitchen where the path to a man’s heart lay.

    Her cookbook also reflects the self-sufficiency of her Irish and German grandparents who settled in Ontario in the 19th century. Besides cooking all the meals, these women, like all pioneer women, made the family’s wine and home remedies. And so, at the back of my mother’s cookbook are recipes for Edna’s Fig Wine and for Dandelion Wine. There’s also a remedy for rheumatism involving turpentine, another for asthma requiring three hundred brewed porcupine quills, another for hair tonic and one for hand lotion. The only two I remember her making were the Dandelion Wine – a terrible brown stew that sat in a crock in the bathtub smelling really bad until she finally pitched it out – and the Hand Lotion. It too was awful – the feel of mucous, the colour of mice and the smell of the old perfumes she always added to give it a certain something – but her friends raved about it. Anyone who praised it got a bottle, but they didn’t get the recipe.

    I wonder what my mother would think if she knew I keep her cookbook on my kitchen shelf alongside new ones for vegetarian quiches and Southeast Asian curries and Mexican dishes, books that call for things she never even heard of – jalapenos, tahini, balsamic vinegar, Dijon mustard, garam masala, even sour cream. And so, although I’ll never make Edna’s Fig Wine, my mother’s book is a reminder of the knowledge, history, pride and unsung hard work of women like her. The added jumble of recipes from friends and relatives reminds me of women’s generosity, vivid evidence of women looking after each other, passing on their knowledge from woman to woman, sister to sister, mother to daughter, friend to friend. Most importantly, it reminds me that women like my mother were doing something I finally understand is enormously important – making food for the people we love.

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