Cooking, and I mean this as all aspects of cooking including baking, has been such an integral part of my life that I feel it should be addressed entirely on its own.
I have told the story of my first experience in cooking. My mother was allowing me to make some muffins. I assume I was following a recipe in my mother’s Ida Bailey Allen Service cookbook. The ingredients and the muffin pan were on the kitchen table. My mother instructed me to leave the yellow Pyrex bowl on the table as I stirred the ingredients—but I wanted to hold the bowl in the crook of my arm like I had seen it done on TV. Needless to say, I dropped the bowl and it crashed to the floor. I ran upstairs crying.
My memory stops right there. Did I go clean up the mess? When did I try again? I surely did because I have been making many kinds of muffins almost all my life. And it took me at least a year to save up enough money to buy my mother another yellow bowl –you couldn’t buy JUST the bowl—you had to buy the entire Pyrex set, which cost about $3.95.
Somehow, I saved up the money and gave the bowl—the entire set of bowls—to my mother. I may have been about ten years old – where did I get the money? I have no idea. I don’t think I started babysitting for my older sister and some of the young mothers in our neighborhood until I was about twelve years old. I was always looking after my younger brothers.
One thing my mother did make from scratch for many years was homemade bread. She baked two large loaves of bread (in black speckled roasting pans) twice a week. I think the homemade bread must have gone by the wayside when my mother began working full time.
I began baking the cookie recipes in Ida Bailey Allen’s Service cookbook; I particularly remember making large peanut butter cookies to send to my mother who was in the hospital at the time.
I learned how to make brownies. From my mother I learned how to make salmon patties from a can of salmon. I learned how to make macaroni and cheese and macaroni with tomato sauce. When I was ten or eleven, my mother instructed me to make dinner for my three brothers (this was long before my brother Scott was born) – mom and my father were going to a dinner.
“Do we really have to eat this?” they asked Dad.
“Every bite” he told them.
Our dinner was salmon patties, canned spinach and macaroni and cheese, with cottage cheese as a salad. When we had finished eating, my brothers all stood up together, grasped their stomachs, and fell down on the floor, pretending to be unconscious. I may have cried, kicking them. They thought it was a good joke.
Salmon patties played a part throughout my life. Years later, when Bob and I had driven in our little Chinook camper to Point Arena in northern California, it was late and we were hungry. We parked in the Point Arena camping area but couldn’t sign in until the next morning. Meanwhile I began making macaroni and cheese (from the blue box) and salmon patties. The mac and cheese was only halfway done and the salmon patties a little on the undone side when we ran out of propane–but we ate them anyway.
For many years after that, whenever I made salmon patties and mac and cheese, Bob would say “This is good but you know what was really GREAT? Those salmon patties and mac and cheese you made that cold foggy night in Point Arena—“ and that was how his memory always remembered that meal.
The next day I took beautiful pictures of the Point Arena light house – many I would have enlarged and framed – and we continued north until we reached the redwoods; we camped near a river and Bob would strike up conversations with people in thirty footer motor homes—us with our little Chinook.
The day after that, we traveled south in very hot weather and so traveled west to get back at camp grounds near Morro Bay where it was always much cooler; we traveled south to reach Pismo Beach again. Throughout our stays I cooked on a two-burner little gas stove. I think we also visited the lighthouse at Morro Bay. I would say that was our best vacation. **
But getting back to my learning how to cook—I learned some things from my
mother, other things from the Ida Bailey Allen Service cookbook. At some point in time, my mother acquired a Meta Given cookbook. She always maintained that Readers Digest sent the book to her, unsolicited, and she refused to pay for it. I began reading the recipes in the Meta Given cookbook and eventually acquired it for myself. I was curious about Meta Given for many years—until I began researching her and writing about her life and cookbooks.
In a blog article I posted in 2013, I wrote:
“I think it was a book club offering but that baffles me as neither of my parents ever joined a book club. I have a vague memory of my mother refusing to pay for it and so it languished on the family bookshelves until I began to read it and eventually claimed for my own. And, to add to the mystery, there is no indication on the inside pages of the cookbook that it was ever a book club selection. The original copyright was 1942. This edition was copyrighted by Meta Given in 1953, which sounds about right to me.
Not surprisingly, the pages most stained are those with cookie recipes on them- rocks and hermits, gum drop cookies, something called cocoa Indians, lemon drop cookies and molasses drop. My mother turned me loose in the kitchen when I was 9 or 10 years old and most of the time, I baked cookies. I really wasn’t interested in cooking anything else at the time.
I now own a copy of the original 1942 “Modern Family Cookbook” which is somewhat thicker and heavier than the 1953 edition. In 1947, Meta compiled “Meta Given’s Modern Encyclopedia of Cooking which is in two volumes. I had to laugh at myself; I thought I only had a copy of Volume I but when I began going through some of my old cookbooks in our new built garage library, I found a copy of Volume II.
None of my copies of Meta Given books have dust jackets and therein is the crux of the matter – so often, biographical information can be found on the dust jackets of cookbooks…”
Over time, as readers found my blog articles (http://sandy chatter.wordpress.com) about Meta Given on Google, they began to write to me and I learned more about her. (there are over six hundred comments in response to this post).
Mean while—back in the 1950s—I was a teenager learning how to cook. In my sophomore year at Mother of Mercy High School, I took cooking classes with Mrs. Cunningham—a dedicated and delightful teacher if ever there was one, who treated cooking as a science. It was there I began to understand that if you could read and follow directions—you could cook–or bake.
Mrs. Cunningham realized that one other classmate and I had more knowledge about cooking than most of her students and so would single us out to take messages to the principal or run other errands. Once a week or so, we were assigned one of the stoves in the cooking class and would make something. I remember once making cream of pea soup out of canned peas—which gives me something to think about these many years later as I make split pea soup with dried peas. Mrs. Cunningham’s approach may have been to get the soup made in a class of 45 minutes. For the life of me, I can’t remember what else we cooked in that class.
At the age of eighteen, I married a boy whose mother was from West Virginia. I didn’t have the best of relationships with his mother but I did learn how to make white (southern) gravy from her, as well as perfect fried chicken and fresh string beans cooked until they almost fell apart. (The fresh green beans was a departure from my mother’s CANNED green beans—speaking of which, my mother always cooked canned corn, peas, green beans, asparagus, beets; if there was a canned version of vegetables, that’s what we grew up on. I nevertasted fresh asparagus until we had been living in California for a few years. Ditto fresh spinach.
Come to think of it, I never tasted a steak until we moved to California. Or avocadoes! Or Clam Chowder! Or Yogurt! Or Artichokes!
In 1961, my father bought several copies of a cookbook being sold by one of his coworkers. That book was the 50 ANNIVERSARY COOKBOOK by WOMEN’S GUILD MATTHEW’S UNITED CHURCH OF CHRIST (in Cincinnati) – for something like one dollar each. He gave one of the cookbooks to me but several years would pass by before I began to wonder if there were other church and/or club cookbooks such as the one Dad bought and asking myself how I could go about finding those cookbooks. I wrote a letter to a magazine called Women’s Circle (not to be confused with Family Circle or Woman’s Day that are still being published). Women’s Circle was published by Tower Press and was entirely made up of letters sent in by women like myself—looking for a book or penpals or any number of other things. I was looking for a Culinary Press cookbooklet of Hungarian recipes for my friend Peggy whose husband was Hungarian) – I think I received well over two hundred letters—some for the Hungarian cookbooklet – I bought two copies for $1.00 each, one for Peggy and one for myself—and began answering the other letters and buying many different cookbooks that formed the nucleus of my cookbook collection.
And it was a revelation to discover the thousands of church and club cookbooks being published over the decades. It was how I knew what to do when my sons’ grammar school PTA announced the desire to compile a cookbook. I immediately contacted the woman whose name was on a flyer my sons brought home from school in 1971—two of those women became life time girlfriends – and our cookbook, RECIPE ROUNDUP was published in 1971.
Moving to California was the proving ground for many foods and many more recipes. I began collecting cookbooks in 1965—some years later, I began collecting filled recipe boxes; I didn’t want just an empty recipe box—I wanted the collection of recipes that can sometimes be found in recipe boxes that turn up in antique stores or even thrift shops. I wanted to find out what recipes other women collected. I began to think of them as the Kitchen Diaries.
And so here I am, in my 70s and not doing very much cooking. I continue to bake but generally give the cookies or cakes away—often to people I am bowling with. Bob passed away in 2011. Jim and I divorced in April of 1986. I met Bob around in August of that year. We did a lot of canning and he was a willing helper. We entered the L.A. County Fair for about a decade, proudly displaying our blue ribbons (and even the red and yellow ribbons).
If I have learned anything along the way—it’s that if you can’t BE cooking, you can at least WRITE about cooking.
–Sandra Lee Smith
Reference (see also)
SEARCHING FOR META GIVEN, originally posted 2/14/11. UPDATED JUNE 22, 2013
BATTERED. TATTERED, STAINED PAGES IN A CHURCH COOKBOOK, June, 2011
WHEN IT’S NOT A BATTERED, TATTERED, STAINED CHURCH COOKBOOK, WHAT IS IT? August, 2011