My mother’s kitchen, in the house we lived in from the time I was five until I turned fifteen, was located on Sutter Street in Cincinnati. This house was my parent’s first home of their own; for the first ten years of their marriage we lived on the first floor of my grandparent’s house on Baltimore Avenue. I remember the day we moved into the house; my brother Jim was put in charge of me, and our 2 year old brother, who was toted to the new home in a wagon. (Imagine! My older brother, not quite 8, was in charge of two younger siblings! – but it was a different world we lived in then).
What I remember most about our new home was the kitchen. It was large and had a linoleum floor (some years later, my two younger brothers would set fire to the kitchen floor, under the table, necessitating a new floor). Outside the back door was a closed-in wooden structure into which the milkman could leave the bottles of milk, so they wouldn’t freeze. They often froze anyway, and the frozen cream would lift the cap right off the bottle. Along one wall was a huge built-in kitchen cabinet with a kind of smoky glass doors. Halfway down was an open workspace, then drawers you could store things in. My mother kept our ration booklets, which she held onto long after The War (WW2) was over, in one of the drawers, along with Pet evaporated milk labels, which she saved and then redeemed for things like pot holders and kitchen towels. Who ever was the baby at the time, after getting too old to be breast fed, would have formula made with Pet milk. Also in the drawer was my mother’s Ida Bailey Allen Service Cookbook, from which I learned to cook. (I now have this cookbook, which is frayed and stained and literally falling apart. I wouldn’t part with it for anything).
Next to this ceiling-to-floor kitchen cabinet (where all the dishes were stored on top, pots and pans in the cupboards below), there was a good size pantry. One of the first things my father did was cut a neat square hole in the floor. Beneath, in the basement, he built large cupboards one of which was the repository of laundry dropped down from the hole above. My mother would gather up soiled laundry and drop it into the hole. When she was ready to do the wash, she’d open up the cupboard and there was all the laundry ready to be sorted (one time we were playing hide-and-seek – my parents were obviously not at home – and my brother Biff got stuck in the hole. It was a great hiding place; when you heard someone coming down to the basement, you could climb up to the pantry cupboard).
In one corner of the kitchen was an old, rounded at the top Frigidaire, with a “freezer” that held two ice cube trays. That was as good as it got, back then. And next to the big kitchen cupboard was the stove. The stove figured prominently in my life because with the Ida Bailey Allen cookbook, I learned how to make brownies and peanut butter cookies, something called Hermits and something called Rocks. I also cooked my first meal on that stove. I never realized until years later how fortunate I was to have a mother who just turned me loose in the kitchen. When I learned how to make grape jelly, I ruined all of her kitchen towels—and when I learned to make muffins, I broke one of her Pyrex bowls (it must have taken me a year to save up enough money to replace the set…you couldn’t buy just one-but I think the entire set was about $3.95). Even so, my mother never discouraged me from taking over in the kitchen.
Years later, I discovered that most of my friends didn’t know anything about cooking – their mothers never allowed them near the kitchen stove. That freedom was the greatest gift my mother ever gave to me.
But this kitchen holds other memories; my sister Becky had to wash the dishes, Jim dried them, and my job was to put them away. Becky would have the latest 10 cent music book propped up behind the faucet and we learned, and memorized, all the latest pop songs. We sang as we worked.
My mother ironed clothes while we did our homework at the kitchen table, and listened to all the radio “stories” such as My Friend Irma, Baby Snooks, The Lone Ranger…and dozens of others. The radio was a small Crosley that was on top of the refrigerator. I have such vivid memories of this kitchen; on one wall between the stove and the kitchen cupboard was a large plaster “fruit” underneath which mom would prop our drawings and “good” school papers.
It was in this kitchen that I learned to cook, learned to love cookbooks. I began sending for free recipe booklets advertised on the backs of boxes and cans—the back of a Hershey Cocoa can, on the label of the Calumet baking powder can. For a penny postcard you could send away for lots of recipe booklets!
We had birthday parties at that kitchen table, and supper was at 6 O’ clock every night, sharp. Being late could get you sent to bed without anything to eat. (My brother Biff was always late—years later he confessed that often he did it deliberately—because my sister and I would feel sorry for him and sneak all sorts of snacks up to his room). And we all sat down at the table to eat—no radio! No TV! We said grace before meals and had to ask to be excused. And you were expected to eat everything on your plate (I spent many a night sitting at the table long after supper was over and everyone else had gone about their business…because I didn’t like something on my plate). I don’t remember how these stalemates were ever resolved. Did I eat the dreaded rice or cabbage? Did a sibling help me dispose of it?
My parents sold this house and we moved to a brand-new home when I was 15. It was never quite the same. The kitchen didn’t have the same feel about it. **