I read cookbooks like I do novels—reading first the front and back covers followed by the copyright date. I flip through the pages to see if there is anything interesting like prologues and letters in novels, advertising and how-to pages in cookbooks. Like a novel, if a cookbook holds my attention, I will fight exhaustion and ignore my to-do list to finish it.
My mom recently shared two family cookbooks with me. Cato Heights 4-H Club Cookbook had belonged to her mother, my Grandma Elizabeth. The Book of Recipes, published in 1923, had been my great-great aunt Verna’s. Both were falling apart at the seams and had yellowed with time. The cookbooks were like unexpected gifts my relatives left for me. Carefully handling pages splattered with decades-old cake batter and pickle juice, I remembered both women fondly. Their DNA were on the pages. My grandma wore several jeweled rings at a time and pink nail polish. I pictured her licking her right index finger as she turned pages. Verna’s eyebrows remained dark even though her hair had turned white. Her hands shook when she served tea with banana bread. Both my grandma and Verna were writers. Verna, so eager to jot down a recipe for “My Own Made up Oatmeal Rocks,” wrote over the text on the first page. My grandma’s beautiful cursive handwriting covered recipe cards that were slipped in between pages. The cookbooks held childhood memories in the form of a divinity recipe my grandma used at Christmas and a corn relish recipe Verna followed in the summertime.
I have a shelf of cookbooks that I have collected over the years. Many of them I found at antique and second-hand shops. I don’t buy them for the recipes, rather their providence. Some contain quotes about food and family from famous authors. In others, hand-written cryptic notes are in the margins. Margaret served this at her husband’s wake. My favorites contain pages dedicated to advice. For example, to remove candle wax, rub the area with ice, scrape off the excess then place stain over white blotter and press with a warm iron. A Party List for 100 People caught my eye and includes 25 lbs. of wieners and four gallons of ice cream. Both pieces of advice are found in the Saint Philip’s Parish Mix and Stir cookbook circa 1965. I have my mom’s copy. She has my grandma’s. It is the only cookbook I actually use. Like my Aunt Verna’s cookbook, the Quick Breads, Cookies, Pies, and Cakes sections are stained with chocolate, egg, and vanilla. I committed my pie crust recipe to memory after a peach slice slid across the page blurring the measurements for oil, flour, salt, and water.
In Verna’s cookbook, I found a Western Union telegram from Albany, New York dated October 25, 1940 addressed to Verna’s sister, Gladys Butler.
MRS. L J BUTLER
ACCEPTED JOB AT 300 STOP GET MR CALKINS ADDRESS FROM MARGARET MASON WIRE IT TO VERNA ARRIVING LANSING SATURDAY HOME ABOUT TUESDAY
L J BUTLER
At the time, Europe was in the throes of WWII. That same month, the National Geographic timeline reports : More than 400,000 Polish Jews are herded into a part of Warsaw known as the Warsaw Ghetto. This continues in Poland the Nazi campaign against the Jews—the Holocaust, in which six million Jews will be killed, along with hundreds of thousands of other minorities. Italy invades Greece. German troops later come to the aid of Italian troops.
A far cry from cookbooks, we track history through war, economic despair, and political upheaval. Baking, cooking, quilting, canning, gardening, sewing, slip into the shadows when there is a crisis, but they are the things that mark our daily lives in good times and bad. Anniversaries, birthdays, christenings, weddings, holidays, etc. connect us to the people we love and help us overcome uncertainty.
Our country is struggling right now. Like many of the people I know, I find myself angry or in tears over things I cannot control, but I take solace knowing I am able to gather the folks I care about around my table for good food and laughter.
The first page of the Mix and Stir cookbook contains a Recipe for a Happy Life. It may not solve our problems, but it can help us get through the day:
Make your own sunshine.
Take equal parts of kindness, unselfishness, and thoughtfulness.
Mix with love and scatter with helpful words.
Add a smile or two.
Throw in a spice of cheerfulness.
Stir with a hearty laugh.
Share with everyone.