Category Archives: MEMORIES

REGIONAL COOKBOOKS VERSUS AMERICANA

FOR BETSY

Back in 1965, when I came up with the idea of collecting cookbooks, I was a babe in the woods, with virtually NO idea how to even START collecting cookbooks. (It was all a matter of knowing where to look.)

This little acorn of an idea actually started with my father, who worked at Formica for many years; a coworker brought in some church cookbooks compiled by the Women’s Guild Matthew’s United Church of Christ (Cincinnati, Ohio)
For their 50th Anniversary in 1961.

Dad bought several of the cookbooks for a dollar each. It had everything -ads from local businesses, lots of recipes – and – a fair amount of dishes indigenous to Cincinnati, Ohio—including mock turtle soup (that’s not one you see in a lot of cookbooks). One of the copies was given to me. (Thanks, Dad! You created a monster!)

That was my very first church cookbook, and I think I made most of the recipes at one time or another and every time I looked through it, I wondered “are there more cookbooks like this one, somewhere out there?

A few years passed by; by 1965 we (husband, two sons) were living in a cute little house in North Hollywood.You know how one thing can lead to another? That’s just what happened. A girlfriend (whose husband was Hungarian) mentioned seeing a collection of Hungarian recipes in booklet form (possibly Culinary Arts Press) and said she would like to find a copy of that cookbooklet.

“I know how to find it,” I told her. “There is a magazine called Women’s Circle, by Tower Press–—women write in to the magazine when they want to find something and they offer to buy or trade for it—I’ll write a letter to them” – and so I did.

My letter appeared in an issue of the magazine a few months later. In addition to expressing a desire to find the Hungarian cookbooklet, I also wrote that I was interested in finding cookbooks to buy or trade for—particular church or club cookbooks.

What followed was an onslaught of mail from women all over the USA—over 200 letters, in fact. I bought a couple copies of the Hungarian booklet—one for my friend, Peggy, and one for myself. I also bought or traded for every cookbook any one had to offer. And that’s how I started collecting cookbooks.

One of the first letters I received was from a young woman like myself, with children, and we immediately became penpals. Betsy lives in Michigan and we are still penpals –more than fifty years later. I also discovered that used book stores had a wealth of church and club cookbooks. I thought of these cookbooks as “regional” cookbooks, although I would learn that “regional” can cover a lot of territory.

So many years later, I have thousands of cookbooks; one that I consider outstanding as a regional cookbook is titled CINCINNATI RECIPE TREASURY, THE QUEEN CITY’S CULINARY HERITAGE, by Mary Anna DuSablon.

This one didn’t turn up in a used book store—I was with my brother, Jim, in between flights taking us to Seattle—(whenever he had business on the west coast. I’d take a few vacation days from my job and travel along with him) when I found Mary Anna DuSablon’s cookbook (if I am not mistaken) in a bookstore inside the airport where we were waiting for a flight from Oakland to Seattle. I bought all the copies they had, to put aside for Christmas presents for my siblings. I gave one of the copies to my brother—he read the entire book by the time we reached Seattle. CINCINNATI RECIPE TREASURY remains one of my all-time favorite “regional” cookbooks. The recipes and their history reached out to us, born and raised in Cincinnati.

Whether considered “regional” cookbooks or referred to as “church and club” cookbooks this genre of cookery has a long and lasting history. According to Clifton Fadiman in the Foreword to the Browns’ CULINARY AMERICANA, it is believed that the earliest of the regional cookbooks were brought out to provide funds for he Sanitary Commissions during the Civil War.

I had to smile at Fadiman’s description of CULINARY AMERICANA “…though it seems basically a mere bibiliography, *Italics mine—sls) if carefully read and thoughtfully interpreted, can throw a significant and diverting light on us as a people. It makes clear, for example, in the most unpretentious way, how stubborn, how resistant to change, are those outgrowths of pioneer institutions, the Ladies Aid Society, the church group, the womens’ clubs, the charming little cookbooks they issued (and continue to issue) are an index of the sturdiness of village culture. It has not all gone neon-light”.

(I should mention, however, that Fadiman’s Foreword to Culinary Americana was written in 1961 (also the publishing date of Culinary Americana) and the regional cookbook, in particular the cookbooks published by the Junior
Leagues of the USA, have blossomed into a great deal more than “charming little cookbooks” as described by Fadiman).

Additionally, Culinary Americana is focused on cookbooks published in the cities and towns of the United States of America from 1860 through 1960; to the best of my knowledge, no one has compiled a collection of church and club cookbooks from 1960 to the present time 2017—but I think there are an enormous number of church and club cookbooks published every year and it may have reach the point where it is impossible to keep tabs on how many are published every year.

In my personal collection of regional cookbooks, divided into two large bookcases (East of the Mississippi and West of the Mississippi (for lack of a better solution and lack of space) and separated from those cookbooks is a third bookcase – anything with “American or Americana in the titles.

Possibly a better solution would be to get everything catalogued on my computer. The prospect overwhelms me. And, in the past few years, I began giving away some of the church-and-club cookbooks to nieces just to create bookshelf space for other cookbooks.

In 2010, my housemate, Bob, created a library out of half of the garage; he built some of the book shelves and used existing bookcases to create other “walls” for my books. After Bob passed away, I also began donating fiction – Bob’s authors and some of my own – to the Lancaster (California) Friends of the Library…

In the center of the garage library are categories such as American Presidents, First Ladies, biographies and auto- biographies.

Other categories of cookbooks are in bookcases that makes up “the wall” dividing the garage library from the garage itself, where I park my car.

Bob passed away from cancer of the esophagus in September, 2011. He managed to create a garage library, rebuild the secret garden and even got my clothesline put up again. (I am frequently reminded of the words to a song “You don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone….they paved paradise and put in a parking lot….”)

Since his passing in 2011, I have donated most of his favorite authors to the Lancaster Library – but also gave some of his authors to people like my friend Mary Jaynne’s husband Steve, who appreciates some of the same authors as Bob did.

As quickly as the shelves went up in the garage library, I unpacked boxes of books that had been stacked in an extra steel shed, bemoaning the discovery that some of my First Ladies’ biographies had gotten wet and were ruined from mildew. Inside the house, I cleared enough shelf space for collections such as my White House books (most written by former employees of the White House) while four smaller bookcases have been filled with my prized collection of food reference and recipes throughout history. The latter are as close to my computer as I can get them.

ALL of my regional cookbooks as well as all of my favorite food authors and all the books with “AMERICAN OR AMERICANA” in the titles are in bookcases that fill all three bedrooms as well as half of the living room. Most of the food authors are books that I collected in the 1990s while writing about those food historians for the Cookbook Collectors Exchange.

I have lost touch with Sue Erwin, the woman who created the CCE and knocked herself out finding books that I would be searching for – generally for an entire year – before sitting down and starting to write about – people like Myra Waldo, Jean Anderson, Meta Given, Nika Hazelton, the Browns (Cora, Rose and Bob Brown) as well as others.

In addition, I collected the series of the Best of the Best cookbooks, dedicated to collecting recipes from regional cookbooks in each of the states in the USA—there are more than fifty cookbooks in the series because the creators of The Best of the Best sometimes discovered a lot more cookbooks in certain states, such as Texas, Louisiana, and Virginia—which warranted a sequel book 2,

(I should also mention that two books represented the Best of the Best from the Mid-Atlantic (representing Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey and Washington, D.C—while the Great Plains are features in the Best of the Best from favorite cookbooks in North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska and Kansas.

I should also mention that the Best of the Best series was the inspiration of Gwen McKee and Barbara Moseley—who VISITED each of the States in search of club and church cookbooks from each. They are the creators of Quail Ridge Press. Each of the Best of the Best series contains a list of all the contributing cookbooks…and back when this famous duo was first publishing the Best of the Best series, my girlfriend, Mandy, and I wrote to some of the contributing cookbooks and were able to order a few that especially appealed to us. I can’t say enough about them—if you are really interested in regional cookbooks, this is a great place to start.

Another series of cookbooks that I am particularly fond of are The Gooseberry Patch cookbooks. I have more than fifty of these cookbooks—titles range from Christmas favorites, to best-loved Church Casseroles. These are also spiral-bound books—and the catch to the Gooseberry Patch is that recipes are culled from the many submitted to them—and, if they choose one of your recipes, you receive a free copy of the cookbook when it is published (a value of $16.95). I think I have about half a dozen, possibly more, that were selected from recipes I sent to Gooseberry Patch. I keep the letter they sent to me, announcing the publication of a particular recipe, with the book. They like it when you are able to provide a little history with your recipe—I submitted a chicken dish that had been my Aunt Annie’s—and it was chosen for Gooseberry Patch’s DINNER$ ON A DIME published in 2009.

Years ago, when I was new to cookbook collecting, a few penpals and I embarked on a quest to find a cookbook from each of the States (this was long before the Best of the Best came along) – I remember being unable to find anything for Utah so I wrote to a newspaper in Utah asking why it was so hard to find any church or club cookbooks published in Utah. Someone—maybe the food editor—wrote back to me, saying that it was possible that local people bought up all the copies of fund-raising cookbooks, leaving no reason to search for buyers beyond their borders. Somehow I did find something from Utah. My curiosity was piqued and I began searching for books about Utah pioneers as well. This is just how one thing leads to another.

Over the last few days, I unearthed a copy of the Santa Barbara Junior League Cookbook, published in 1939. (I need to search through my Junior League books to see which has the earliest publishing date).

This one could have fallen into the category of battered, tattered cookbooks and I might have overlooked it if not for the 1939 publishing date—and the many charming recipes featuring local (Southern California) recipes. It belongs with my collection of California cookbooks. My curiosity is piqued again with a recipe for Nabisco Cream Cake—that requires “rolled Nabisco wafers”. Does anyone know what these were? Obviously a cookie from Nabisco—but when did the cookie disappear from grocery shelves? This is a dessert recipe that is refrigerated for at least 12 hours after it has been put together. (I wonder—if I write to Nabisco, do you think they will answer me?)

Back in the 1970s, both my sister Becky and I found ourselves contributing recipes to PTA cookbooks being published by our sons’ schools—the Beachy School PTA Cookbook remains one of my favorites—while Becky’s participation in the Cheviot School PTA (Cincinnati, Ohio) cookbook makes that one a favorite in our household—that’s another way to get yourself involved with the publication of a regional cookbook.

TO CONTACT GOOSEBERRY PATCH, write to Gooseberry Patch, 600 London Road, PO Box 190, Delaware, Oh 43015, or call them at 1-800-854-6673.

To contact the editors of Best of the Best, Quail Ridge Press, PO Box 123, Brandon, Ms OR email them at info@quailridge.com.

To be continued…..coming next, cookbooks with America or Americana in their titles.

Sandra Lee Smith

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CHRISTMAS MANIA

Originally posted November, 2012.

For Biff and Bill, two of my younger brothers

Christmas has always been, throughout my life, the most special holiday of all. I was one of seven children and we were encouraged at a very young age to give presents to one another, our parents and our grandparents. Consequently, as Christmas approached, there would be much giggling and whispering, along with outraged threats when one became annoyed with a sibling. “Just for THAT, you aren’t going to get a Christmas present from ME!”

Of course, those threats were never carried out and as Christmas approached, we all fell pell-mell into a frenzy of shopping, making and wrapping up presents. I remember Santa ornaments made out of walnut shells, a lot of Woolworth’s hair nets and cards of bobby pins, and a bottle of nail polish that had a cap resembling a fingernail. There were dozens of bottles of Midnight in Paris cologne on my mother’s vanity and odd little gifts like miniature German-American dictionaries.

For we didn’t, of course, have much money–this was in the early 1940s after the end of World War II. The gifts we children made or bought were devised out of our own ingenuity or resources. We didn’t have any such thing as an allowance, and it was difficult to earn money. We did, though. We mowed lawns and shoveled snow; I sold greeting cards from Cardinal Craftsman for my mother, to the neighbors; we picked apples from my grandmother’s back yard trees and cherries from our own back yard. We ran errands for all the neighbor ladies (usually good for a nickel—but sometimes all you got was a cookie…it was considered bad etiquette to ask in advance how much you might get for running an errand. You ran the errand, and then crossed your fingers.
We collected soda pop bottles which were worth two cents each, and cashed them in. When we got a little older, there were babysitting jobs and paper routes and for my older brother, Jim, setting bowling pins at St Bonnie’s bowling alley (before automatic pinsetters were invented). He also had a parttime job working for Durkee Foods, where our Uncle George worked and occasionally brought home items that had expired dates on them. sometimes the expired cans of biscuits would explode when you began to open them.

We saved old gift wrap and ribbons from one year to the next and ironed out the paper and ribbons. We made tags out of old Christmas cards, construction paper and those little stickers that didn’t stick to anything else.

Throughout all of this, as Christmas approached, we memorized Christmas songs—hymns and tunes like “Jolly Old Saint Nicholas” and “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer”. I happen to belong to the generation that remembers when Rudolph and Frosty the Snowman were first released. We had the sheet music for piano and learned all the words. I sang “Rudolph” with two clowns at a Christmas party sponsored by my grandmother’s club that year.

We took piano lessons and flute and clarinet and we practiced these melodies ad nauseam, until everyone around us was thoroughly tired of hearing them. When we got tired of hearing each other, my mother would sit down at the piano and play “Silver Bells” which was, I think, the only Christmas song she knew how to play. She never had lessons and played entirely by ear. Incredible, when I think of it. She was actually pretty good. And because she never could read music, it was probably also why she pushed so hard for us to have music lessons. **

My younger brothers and I went downtown, in Cincinnati, once a year – sometime just before Christmas and a few times right on Christmas Eve day. We’d have our hard-earned pennies and nickels and dimes tightly guarded against potential pickpockets—sometimes as much as a dollar—to shop for Christmas presents. We took the bus from Fairmount to the downtown area, do our shopping, visit all the department store Santas (we knew they weren’t the real Santa but each one was good for a peppermint stick) and have lunch at the Woolworth’s lunch counter as well. You could get a grilled cheese sandwich with dill pickle, and a coke, for fifteen cents. We three shared one sandwich, one coke. Bus fare each way was a nickel, leaving us at least seventy five cents to shop with.

Not too many years ago, my childhood girlfriend Carol confessed that she was always jealous of me on those shopping trips.

“ME!” I exclaimed, “Whatever FOR?”
“Because,” she replied, “You could buy so much more with a dollar than
anybody else.”

My brothers and I have fond memories of those shopping excursions.

Late in the afternoon, we’d board the bus, elated with our purchases and go home to wrap them up in ironed-out previously used gift wrap. I think we ironed out the ribbons too (this was long before pre-made bows became available).

“The funny thing is,” I told my friend, Carol – “I was no more than ten years old when I began taking my brothers downtown. Can you imagine letting one of your own children do that at the age of ten?”
Times have changed, we agreed. **

We listened, from Thanksgiving on, to Santa Claus reading children’s letters on the radio –all the way from the North Pole! That, we knew, was the real honest to goodness Santa. The Santas in Department stores were just helpers.

And throughout all of this planning and preparing, none of us lost sight of the true meaning of Christmas. It was there for us to see in the crèche made up of almost-life-size statues in our church. There was a living nativity downtown at Garfield Park that we visited every year too. Real animals. Real Mary and Joseph. Not a real Baby Jesus though. We had advent calendars and we sang Christmas hymns in church and school. We went shopping with our mother and got new shoes at Schiff’s, and a new hat and outfit to wear to church on Christmas morning. I think some of the new clothing was ordered by mail.

Christmas was celebrated, officially, at our house on Christmas Eve. We children were usually sent to my grandmother’s house on Baltimore Avenue, for the afternoon. If my brothers and I had gone shopping that day, we went to grandma’s house afterwards. There wasn’t a hint of Christmas in our own home prior to Christmas Eve. Then my father would come with the car to pick us up. His cousin, Barb, who was my godmother, was often with him. Everyone piled into the car to go home. As we pulled up in front of the house, we would see the lights on the Christmas tree through the living room window. Sometimes snowflakes would begin to fall.

“He’s been here! He’s been here!” all of us children would shriek, tumbling out of the car and up the steps to the house. My mother would meet us at the door. “He’s just leaving!” she’d cry. “If you hurry you might catch a glimpse of him from the back door—“

The pageant never changed. We all shouted the same words every year. My mother’s responses were always the same. We’d fall all over one another trying to catch a glimpse – too late! He was gone – but oh, boy, see what he’s left behind!

The tree would be in a corner of the living room—surrounded, it seemed to our childish eyes, with a tremendous wealth of toys and presents. My mother would call out the names on the packages, one by one. One year she was in the hospital right up until Christmas. She came home to be with the family and had to return to the hospital shortly thereafter. (In retrospect, I think this was a year when she had a miscarriage, followed by a blood transfusion, which led to a bout with Hepatitis—she was in the hospital for most of one winter).

I realize now that there weren’t so many presents under our tree—and much of it consisted of what we gave to one another and the bulk of gifts from our parents were practical –generally socks and underwear –but the delight was always there. My two younger brothers always asked for (and seems like they always received) gun-and-holster sets, like Roy Rogers wore, and wind-up trains that never seemed to last from one year to the next, although my older brother Jim had a Lionel train set that survived a lot of childish abuse.

At a very young age, I developed a great love for books—one of my favorite Christmas memories is the one when my brother Jim gave me five – FIVE! brand new Nancy Drew books. It was heaven.

Is it any wonder that the joy of Christmas spilled over into my adult life? At our house, we began “thinking Christmas” as early as May, when the first raspberries ripened to make raspberry jam. Later, we made pomegranate jelly and pomegranate cordial, and I would begin stocking up on nuts, chocolate chips, sugar and flour, to make fruitcake and cookies. I collected a huge assortment of Christmas books and magazines and the pages often became dog-eared from so much handling as Christmas approached. Every member of the family had their particular favorite cookie and no matter how often I resolved “not to let everything get out of hand this year” by the time I’ve baked everyone’s favorite, every container in the house is filled to the brim with cookies.

When my sons were really little, I’d buy gifts all year long and wrap them as soon as possible, to hide in a closet far out of the reach of inquiring eyes and poking fingers—but no matter how secretive I thought I was, my son Chris’ packages always had a finger hole punched through each one of the packages that had his name on it. (One year, I overlooked an entire box of wrapped gifts and didn’t find it until after Christmas – but we were celebrating Hanukkah with my girlfriend Rosalia and her family, so I took the gifts to her house to give to my sons as Hanukkah presents. They thought celebrating Hanukkah was just fine).

Christmas catalogs started arriving in the mail around in September—happily, I was not alone in my mania and a number of friends shared my enthusiasm; we’d swap catalogs and go through them until they were almost in shreds from handling. The children would go through the catalogs too.

“I want this,” they’d say. “and this…and this…and this…”

We saved fruitcake tins and collected baskets of all sizes. Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas if each of our friends didn’t receive a goody basket when they came to visit. One year, the boys decorated “gingerbread houses” made out of graham crackers. Another time we made gingerbread boys and girls for all of the children. We have, on different Christmases, baked dozens of different kinds of cookies and confections…not so difficult to do, really. I would make up batches of cookie dough to freeze or refrigerate—this could be done months in advance—then spent a week (evenings only since I worked full time) baking up one batch after another.

When I was a newlywed, our first Christmas tree ornaments were some old glass blown ornaments from Germany that had belonged to my husband’s mother. The original hooks had been lost and my husband, when he was a teenager, had twisted bits of flexible black wire on them instead. We still have those glass ornaments with the black bits of twisted wire. Way back when, I started collecting ornaments – originally with the thought in mind that as each of my sons got married, they would have a collection of their own ornaments. My collection grew so much that it became impossible to get them all on one tree. So we added a second tree. Then a third. Our last Christmas in Arleta in 2007, we had eight Christmas trees throughout the house.
Whenever I went on vacation somewhere, I’d look for a Christmas store—amazing how many cities have one! (Favorite Christmas stores? One near Carmel, California that my sister Becky and I discovered one year, and one in Atlanta, Georgia where we had flown for a niece’s wedding).

Ornaments make great gifts too and over the years my many nieces and nephews have received an assortment of homemade ornaments from Aunt Sandy. One year they received clothespin soldiers, another year a friend’s mother made up crocheted snowflakes for me. Still another Christmas the children received ceramic gingerbread boys and girls that a penpal of mine in Maryland made up for me. And another Christmas, a penpal in New Jersey made up tiny clothespin gnomes for me. Christmas ornaments, I always felt, were the ideal gift – they’re put up on a tree for a short time during the holidays, no one ever tires of seeing hem and remembering where they came from—and every Christmas, and those ornaments bring back memories to the recipients.
The plaster of Paris crèche in our home was purchased piece by piece in dime stores back in the late 1950s; many of the pieces are chipped from being handled repeatedly by my sons when they were little. They liked to re-arrange the figures. One year we somehow misplaced St Joseph and had to have one of the Wisemen stand in for him.

One year, I fulfilled a lifelong desire to make an entire gingerbread house (it was a lot of WORK and I don’t think I will ever attempt it again–Bob did a great deal of the work putting all the parts of the house together) – and another year when we were in northern California for Thanksgiving weekend, we found a Lionel train, fulfilling another lifelong dream. (Then I didn’t want the younger children handling the Lionel train, so we began buying battery-operated oversized train sets).

When I was living in Florida, I acquired two penpals who loved Christmas as much as I, and we forged a special friendship, sharing memories and exchanging (what else?) homemade ornaments.

Christmas is too commercialized, you say? I don’t think so. There are still many of us around who love Christmas, who have never lost sight of the fact that Christmas is our celebration of the birth of the baby Jesus.

Christmases, from the time you begin to create a family until your children are grown and bringing their children to Grammy and Grandpa for Christmas—are a collection of memories and maybe that’s what much of Christmas is all about – all those memories, spanning decades, going back to your own earliest childhood.
**
May your days be merry and bright, and may all your Christmases be white.

Sandra Lee Smith

REFLECTIONS ON CHRISTMAS COOKIES 2017

When did this all begin? Good question! I don’t remember my mother baking Christmas cookies and my grandmother’s cookies, I recall, were always diamond shaped butter cutout cookies, onto which she brushed egg white and then dusted with a blend of granulated sugar and finely chopped walnuts.

My sister Becky corrected me and insisted that Grandma made many different kinds of cookies such as Lebkuchen and Spritz, Holiday Fruit cookies, Pfefferneusse (pepper nuts) or Springerle (which requires a special rolling pin or a board with designs imprinted on it). Becky said each family received a dress box full of Grandma’s cookies. Why don’t I remember this?

Grandma Schmidt was from Germany, Grandpa Schmidt from Hungary, so her baking was generally European—we grew up on a lot of strudel, often made with apples from her back yard. She also made doughnuts (especially for the Feast of the Three Kings, when we would find a coin in our doughnut)—but for the life of me I can’t remember anything except those diamond shaped cookies. I have her cookie cutter today—that and a small heart shaped cutter.

I remember helping Grandma cut out the little diamond cookies which I have been able to duplicate.

I got married December 6th in 1958 and don’t have any memory of making cookies that first Christmas, although I did begin to search for recipes. I clipped some holiday baking ideas out of December women’s magazines and searched through a Betty Crocker Picture cookbook that was a wedding present. I think it highly unlikely that I would have attempted any cut-out cookies that first Christmas as a newlywed (did I even having a rolling pin?) but I might have made drop cookies, such as chocolate chip or oatmeal raisin, cookies I was already familiar with. In addition to the Betty Crocker Picture Cookbook, I had a Meta Given cookbook that had been my mother’s but I don’t think she ever used it.

As I think back on that first Christmas, I don’t know if I even had baking equipment – cookie sheets or baking pans. It had been a very small wedding.
My first child was born in September, 1960 and I probably began baking cookies when he was a toddler. What stands out most in my memory is that we had a wonderful big yellow stove that was popular in the 1920s. What wouldn’t I give to have that old stove today!

What I do remember, quite well, is the Christmas of 1963. By this time my son Steve had been born and we drove across country to California a few weeks before Christmas, to avoid a heavy storm heading for the Midwest. We rented an apartment in Toluca Lake and friends came over on Christmas Eve to celebrate with homemade cookies and coffee. We didn’t have any furniture yet so everyone sat on the floor. Guests went home with bags of cookies – so sometime between 1958 and 1963 I did learn something about baking. We bought a small tree and some small toys for our two little boys. You don’t need much to celebrate Christmas. Cookies help!

A few years later—notably Christmas of 1965—found us renting a little house in North Hollywood. And I was baking cookies like crazy. When I had baked all of the cookies, I began decorating them with butter cream frosting; I had cookies drying all over the kitchen and dining room area of that little house on Kittridge Street—but in the morning, discovered that Michael had eaten ALL of the frosting off ALL of the cookies. (I can’t remember what I did next—did I make up more frosting and re-decorate the cookies? I don’t remember! But on a similar note, Jim had over a dozen cantaloupe ripening in the far back of the yard one year; he would check on his cantaloupe after work every day. So, he burst into the kitchen one afternoon yelling that all his cantaloupe were GONE.
“Ask Michael what he did with them” I suggested.
“OH yeah!” Jim snarled at me. “Blame it on a five year old!”
So when Michael realized his daddy was home from work he came running inside.
“What did you do with Daddy’s cantaloupe?” I asked Michael.
“I gave them all away” my son replied.
When asked WHY, he said “I don’t like cantaloupe”
I don’t think Jim ever tried to grow cantaloupe after that.
**
I began collecting Christmas cookie recipes—I think the first recipes I found were in a Woman’s Day magazine—the magazine would publish a cut-out section of recipes to celebrate each Christmas holiday—but as time went by, I think all of the women’s magazines that I subscribed to featured either Christmas cookie recipes or how to create a gingerbread house—and other easy how-to do directions; I remember making an orange liqueur one year and for another holiday, I made a strawberry liqueur that I, for one, didn’t like – it tasted too much like cough medicine to me.

The 70s found us living in a little house in Arleta and I began attempting to make jams and putting them into baby food jars—prior to this, we lived in first one house on Terra Bella, then in another one. We were living on Terra Bella when first Christopher was born, and then fifteen months later, our son Kelly was born. I became involved with some volunteer work at Beachy School and when Chris & Kelly were in kindergarden, then first grade, I made large cookies for each of the students to decorate—large Easter egg cookies, one year, large heart-shaped cookies for another.

In September, 1974, we moved into the Arleta Avenue house…I think maybe my heart and soul were waiting for us to live in the Arleta house. We lived there until we moved to Florida in 1979—and were not able to return to my beloved Arleta house until 1989. (meantime—after three years in Florida, we returned to Southern California and bought a house in Granada Hills.

Fate intervened again and I rented a small house in Van Nuys when forced to sell the house in Granada Hills….that’s where I was living in 1989 when Kelly came home one day and announced that the “Arleta house is going to be for rent again soon” and, as soon as it was vacated, we were packing up to move once again.

I didn’t plan to ever move again—I loved the Arleta house and so did Bob, my housemate by this time. Fate decreed otherwise and in 2008 I bought a house in Quartz Hill, California. (it took 3 months to pack up all the books, recipe boxes, cookie jars and everything else I wanted to keep)—my son Kelly made endless trips back and forth between the Arleta house and a storage unit that he rented for me. We moved the last of our belongings Thanksgiving weekend, 2008.

By this time, I had grandchildren and friends’ children or grandchildren coming to the house to do a “cookie and a craft” – for instance, they would decorate a small artificial tree and after that, would decorate large tree-shaped cookie. We did the cookie & craft project for at least a decade. In recent years, I’ve had just a few children coming over to work on an easy project, and decorating some large cookies to take home with them.

Sandra Lee Smith

KEEPING A PACKED PANTRY

(Previously posted in 2015)

In my last home, the Arleta house, we had a walk-in pantry off the laundry room. Originally, it had ceiling to floor shelves on the left side with a few shelves on the right that were large enough for storing small appliances. When Bob and I moved into the Arleta house in 1989, I pointed out how much more efficient the pantry would be with shelves on the right from top to bottom – with maybe a few across the back for good measure. I wish I had photographed that pantry after Bob added all the shelves. It was a kitchen-lovers-ideal pantry.

There wasn’t a whole heck of a lot of cupboard shelves in that kitchen – enough for dishes and pots and pans with a small cupboard dividing the kitchen from the eating area ideal for glassware. Another small cupboard above that cupboard with the glassware was ideal for medicines—out of the reach of children, especially. I loved that kitchen. When Jim and I first moved into the Arleta house in 1974, my girlfriend Rosalia made lovely gingham curtains for the kitchen. A camellia bush was right outside the front windows, enough to see out but no one could see in. (and the house sat a good ways back from the street). Out of all the places in which we lived throughout 26 years of marriage, my favorite was the Arleta house, owned by a girlfriend of mine.

I also loved that pantry – and I thoroughly enjoyed keeping it packed. It was during the 70s that we acquired some Latter Day Saint (Mormon) friends and I was intrigued by their belief of keeping a year’s worth of bottle water and staples on hand, in case of an emergency. Well, my then-husband, Jim, was self-employed with business precarious throughout most of our marriage. I was a stay at home mom for 12 years, returning to work full time in 1977—and when only one of you has a steady income, you have to be able to create meals out of almost anything – or almost nothing. We frequently had spaghetti—so often that one of my sons won’t eat it at all today. (and I couldn’t tell you the last time I cooked spaghetti for myself) – but back then, I kept as much dry spaghetti as would fit inside a large potato chip can. I also kept boxes of macaroni and cheese on hand (something growing boys would always eat).

When canned vegetables were on sale, I bought as many as I could fit on two of the pantry shelves. Sugar, flour, brown and granulated sugars, pancake mix and Bisquick are kept in Tupperware containers.

My daughter in law and I were talking recently about an obsession she and I share – keeping pantry shelves well-stocked; we think it may have something to do with our childhood experiences of never feeling like there was enough to eat. My mother fed six of us with one can of peas, spinach—whatever.

For years, I wondered why my mother cooked almost no fresh vegetables—even the spinach was from a can The only vegetables I can remember my mother cooking were potatoes, carrots, some onion, sometimes celery—even peas were from a can.

The only kind of salmon we ever had came out of a can (and we all loved salmon patties) and there was the nefarious cabbage that my mother put on to cook around 9 am for dinner at 6 pm. I grew up thinking I HATED cabbage, beets, and rice—only to discover years later in California that it wasn’t the cabbage, beets or rice that I loathed – it was the way my mother cooked these things, cooking them all day long (mind you, crockpots hadn’t come along yet). I was an adult living in California before I discovered I LIKE rice – we called my mother’s rice “library paste rice”—the only person I know who ikes the library paste rice is my brother Bill.

It was a March St Patrick’s Day years ago that I discovered how great Corned Beef and Cabbage is. And both my sister Becky and I loved canned peas cooked in a creamy white sauce ala Viola. It was one of the few things my mother cooked that we liked.

When my cousin, Renee, gave me the cookbook that had belonged to our maternal grandmother, I had an inkling of an understanding why my mother cooked everything to death—very old cookbooks advised cooking canned foods to beyond recognition—this reference to “canned” meant home-canned-foods.

If you can vegetables, a good long boil will prevent you from getting botulism, in case there is any botulism toxin lurking in the jar. The cookbook author wasn’t referring to manufactured canned goods—but just as my maternal grandmother would have boiled things to death, so did my mother. And although I do a considerable amount of home canning, I don’t can anything low acid – I only can foods that can be put into a boiling water bath, rather than a pressure cooker.

And I will be the first to admit that frozen vegetables are always a great addition to a meal—I keep several boxes of frozen spinach on hand in my freezer…it isn’t something actually coming from the pantry, but frozen vegetables, poultry and ground beef are a part of the packed pantry.
If you want to keep a packed pantry, I suggest stocking up on various vegetables or even fruits, different kinds of pasta, even some cans of chicken and salmon to have on hand in an emergency. Stock up on sales of tomato sauce or tomato paste, cans of diced chilies. I have lived for years in areas where dry beans of all kinds are easily available and (key word) inexpensive. Pack your pantry with the kinds of staples that you, your significant other, and any children still living at home – will readily eat. Don’t buy any canned foods that are dented – it’s too risky and not worth buying, even on sale.

I also stock up on boxed cake mixes when they are on sale—for which I am pleased, because a) cake mixes have been considerably reduced in size by the manufacturers and b) the prices have skyrocketed in recent months—but a thought about storing items like cake mixes – I have two large plastic bins with tight fitting lids in my laundry room/pantry that hold a lot of cake mixes, as well as flour and sugar. I also have all these recipes for making cookies out of cake mixes and I haven’t played around with my recipes enough to know what changes we may need to make with a boxed cake mix. I will get back to you on what changes we may need to make with those stream-lined cookie recipes. If you have attempted cookie making with cake mixes since the sizes have been reduced, let me hear from you!

–Sandra Lee Smith

AMBITIONS OF CHILDHOOD (WHAT I WANT TO BE WHEN I GROW UP)

originally posted in 2011.

When we were children, no one ever aspired to be an insurance salesman or a clerk-typist. We all had loftier ambitions—to be a cowboy in the rodeo or a famous movie star. Few of us ever came anywhere near realizing those ambitions.

However, in my family—two of us have come close. I always wanted to write, and at an early age, began writing stories which I surreptitiously mailed to “My Weekly Reader”.

I was receiving my first rejection slips by the time I was in the third grade. There was never any question in my mind that I would be a Writer.

When I was about ten or eleven years old, my parents purchased an old Royal
Typewriter. I taught myself how to type using two fingers (and had to unlearn the wrong way when I took typing classes in high school). The acquisition of a Real Typewriter brought the dream a little closer, – even though I knew nothing, at the age of thirteen, about double-spacing and word counts. I began writing “novels” which were single-spaced and rarely re-written. My girlfriends loved to read them, however, and the “novel” would be passed around in class, one page at a time.

One of the great tragedies of this period was my mother accidentally burning one of my novels. I remember tears of anguish – and cries of “I’ll never be able to write that book again!”. And, I never did, but most of the other “novels” of my teenage years have survived. In high school I wrote a novel titled “Charm Bracelet” which included a court room scene. I was aided and abetted in writing this chapter by my typing teacher who happened to also work at the courthouse and kindly encouraged my writing enough that I could write my “stories” in class as long as I completed all my typing assignments by Friday afternoon.

Those old standard typewriters were a far cry from today’s computer keyboards or even electric typewriters which came along some years later. In my 20s, I acquired a Smith-Corona electric portable typewriter on which I banged out stories and poems so hard that the typewriter often danced across the kitchen table. Occasionally I sold a short article or a poem, just enough to fuel my ambitions. What a thrill to receive a letter of acceptance from an editor! (Or even a letter – albeit with a rejection slip – of encouragement).

More practically, I typed insurance policies on the side to make some extra cash when I was a stay-at-home mother). Every poem or short story that I submitted to a magazine had to be retyped when it was returned with a rejection slip. We couldn’t even have imagined the advent of today’s computers or how they would streamline writing!

Life has a way of getting in the way of lofty ambitions, of course, and my life was detoured with marriage and the births of four sons. I spent many years working for insurance companies before finally returning to writing. When I purchased my first computer in the mid 1980s, I told myself “Now I will write”.

My younger brother Bill always wanted to be a cowboy. Cowboy as in, has horses, will ride. I have a black and white photo of him, sitting on the front porch of our house on Sutter Street, hanging onto our black lab dog “Mike”. Bill, at age six, is wearing a cowboy hat and if you look closely, you can also make out the gun-and-holster strapped to his waist. (Every year at Christmas, my two younger brothers asked for, and received, gun-and-holster sets. The pistols were cap guns; a roll of caps was inserted inside the gun so you had more than a six-shooter. It was probably a 50 or 100 shooter).

We all played cowboys and Indians (the most coveted role being that of the horse). We went to Saturday matinees to see Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, Gene Autry, and Hopalong Cassidy. The rest of the week we ran up and down the street, whinnying and stomping our feet. But whereas most of us outgrew any lofty ambition to really be a cowboy, my brother Bill did just that. Today, he has a farm in Ohio and more horses than you can shake a stick at. He wears cowboy hats and cowboy boots … and even though he is an engineer for a valve company (for somebody has to pay for all those horses and what they eat) – everybody calls him cowboy. And he really is.

Sandra Lee Smith

THE JOY OF PENPALS IN 2016

My Very first penpal was a distant cousin that I met when my family visited hers in Detroit; I was 9 or 10 at the time. Pat & I became friends and exchanged addresses and corresponded for a while. My next penpal, I believe, was a Vietnamese girl who was attending high school in New York State. During my freshman year, teachers asked if we wanted to exchange addresses with girls attending the NY school. Anne’s family were political refugees–in the mid 50s! and sought sanctuary in the United States. We corresponded until after graduating from high school.

I don’t think I thought a lot about penpals for a few years, while getting married and becoming a mother I married in December of 19 58 and my first son Michael was born in September of 1960. . We moved to California in 1961 and I began corresponding with friends and family in Ohio.

I began subscribing to Women’s Circle in the mid 1960s. Specifically, I think I “discovered” WC in 1965. I think I began finding the magazine on the magazine racks of the supermarket where we shopped. Around that same time, I became interested in collecting cookbooks. Simultaneously, a friend of mine told me about a Culinary Arts Institute cookbook on Hungarian cuisine that she was searching for.

“I bet I know where we can find it!” I told her. I wrote a letter to Women’s Circle, asking for the cookbook, offering to pay cash. As an afterthought, I added that I was interested in buying/exchanging for old cookbooks, particularly club-and-church cookbooks. Little did I suspect what an avalanche of mail would fill my mailbox when my letter was published! I received over 250 letters. We purchased several of the Hungarian cookbooks and I began buying/trading for many other cookbooks which formed the nucleus of my cookbook collection. And I have to tell you something that I think was pretty spectacular—I was never “cheated” or short-changed by anyone. Even more spectacular were the friendships that I formed, as a result of that one letter, which still exist to this day.

One of the first letters I received was from another cookbook collector, a woman who lived in Michigan. Betsy and I—both young mothers at the time (now both grandmothers)—have remained pen-pals for over fifty years, while our children grew up, married, and had children of their own.

The first time I met Betsy and her husband, Jim, they drove from Michigan to Cincinnati, where I was visiting my parents, to pick up me and my children, so that we could spend a week visiting them in Michigan. A few years later, my friends repeated the gesture – driving hundreds of miles to Cincinnati to pick us up and then returning us to my parents a week or so later. On one of those trips, I took my younger sister Susie along with us and we all have fond memories of going blueberry picking at a berry farm. We visited the Kellogg factory and went to some of the flea markets where you could find hundreds of club-and-church cookbooks for as little as ten cents each (remember, this was the 1960s!). On one of those visits, I met Betsy’s British pen-pal, Margaret, who was also visiting. We had such a wonderful time together.

Around this same time, I responded to a letter written to “WOMEN’S CIRCLE” by an Australian woman (whose name I no longer can recall). She received such a flood of letters from the USA that she took them to her tennis club, spread them out and said “If anyone would like an American pen-friend, here you are!” A young woman named Eileen—who was, like myself, married to a man named Jim, and—like me—also had a son named Steven—chose my letter. We’ve been corresponding ever since. In 1980, when we were living in Florida, we met Eileen and Jim for the first time and from the time they got off the plane and walked up to us, it was just like greeting an old friend or relative. (We liked—and trusted—them so much that we lent them our camper to drive around the USA). When they reached Los Angeles, they contacted, and met, friends of ours who lived in the San Fernando Valley. About a year later, our friends from California were visiting us, when the best friends of my Aussie friends’ (who lived in London) contacted us in Miami and paid us a visit. The following year, when my California friends visited London, they paid a return visit to their new London acquaintances.

(I hope you have followed all of this). I think during those decades when penpals became fast and lasting friends with one another it was sort of like belonging to a particularly friendly club, whether you MET in person or not.

Another young woman who wrote to me (around 1974, we think) was a housewife/mother who lives near Salem, Oregon. She wrote in response to a letter that I had written to Tower Press, noting that we shared the same birthday. In 1978, my husband and children and I drove to Oregon in our camper, where we met my pen-pal and her family. I’ve lost count of the number of times they have visited us in California. And yes, we’re still penpals.

Another pen-pal acquired in the 1960s was my friend Penny, who lives in Oklahoma. We first visited Penny and her husband Charles and their three sons in 1971, on our way to Cincinnati for a summer vacation. We spent a night at Penny’s and were sent on our way the next morning with a bagful of her special chocolate chip cookies. What I remember most about that visit was my father’s reaction when we arrived in Cincinnati. He kept asking, “How do you know these people in Oklahoma?” (The concept of pen-pals was a foreign one to both my parents. I think they sometimes wondered what planet their middle daughter was from!)

Two other pen-pals were acquired when we moved to Florida. Lonesome and homesick, I wrote yet another letter to Women’s Circle, and mentioned my love of Christmas (and preparing for it all year long). One of these was a woman in Louisiana and the other was an elderly widowed lady who lived in my home state of Ohio. Years later, I think both ladies passed away and had no one to notify me.

Before everyone owned a computer and Internet services flooded the market – we had Prodigy. The concept of Prodigy, at that time, was to offer bulletin boards to which you could write, asking for friends, recipes, whatever. It was through Prodigy that I became acquainted with my friend Pat and her husband Stan. We met for the first time when Bob & I went to the L.A. County Fair one year. Pat & Stan came to visit us at our motel in Pomona; they lived in nearby Covina. Eventually, Prodigy would be overcome by AOL, Earthlink, Juno—and the dozens of other Internet services which have changed our lives so drastically. I think the one greatest thing about the Internet is that it has brought so many of our family members and friends back together again.

I don’t know when I acquired a penpal in Ithica, New York—a girlfriend named Lisa, who, at this time, still doesn’t have a computer and writes all handwritten letters to me. (sometimes I respond in pen and ink and sometimes I type letters).

In 2006, I acquired two Canadian penpal girlfriends—ten years later, our friendships are going strong, whether by handwritten letters, emails—or visits in person. One thing these two friends and I have done is provide names and phone numbers of family members—just in case one of us falls out of contact for whatever reason. These two friends are as near and dear to me as sisters but none of us are spring chickens anymore.

You would be surprised to know that writing letters is NOT a forgotten art—there are many of us alive and well and a handwritten letter is such a welcome sight in our mail boxes.

Sincerely Yours,

Sandra Lee Smith

BAD FOOD – UPDATED

BAD FOOD. UPDATED

(PREVIOUSLY POSTED 2011)

We’ve all had experiences with “bad food” – food prepared improperly or maybe not agreeable to our taste buds.

Topping my list of “Bad Food” would be my mother’s library-paste rice and Hasenpfeffer (sweet and sour rabbit). The smell of the marinade in which my mother soaked the rabbit made me sick to my stomach. I knew it would be on the table in the next few days—only recently did I discover how my younger brother Bill side-stepped anything he didn’t like that was going to be dinner one night—he would hang around at Aunt Dolly’s until she asked him if he wanted to eat with them. Of course he did! (It never occurred to me that a person could deliberately skip a meal).

Mom didn’t have much talent with cabbage, either. She would put it on to boil around 9 am so it would be slimy mush by dinnertime. My sister Becky shuddered at the memory of mom’s lima beans while we all pinched our noses remembering the smell of kidney stew. (Maybe not Bill—he LIKED kidney stew).

My mother’s philosophy seemed to be, if the recipe required one or two hours cooking time, all day would be much better. Granted, we never suffered the ill effects of eating undercooked food and dinner could sometimes be a mystery, guessing what was in the pot. I was an adult living in California before I discovered how wonderful a pilaf rice can taste or how delicious corned beef and cabbage is when the cabbage hasn’t boiled all day.

I was born on the brink of World War II and many groceries were rationed or simply unavailable. My mother stretched her ten-dollars-a-week grocery allowance by cooking a lot of organ meats, which were cheap and un-rationed (liver, kidneys, tongue, heart and BRAINS). Ew, ew. No, don’t tell me it tastes just like scrambled eggs.

And, a child’s imagination can run amuck with the names of certain things. Take “head cheese”. Actually, it’s not a cheese but a lunchmeat, served cold–but do you know why it’s called “head cheese”? It was made with the head of a calf or a pig. As for my own particular aversion to stewed rabbit, I’m not sure which I despised the most – the rabbit or the occasional BB that might be found floating in the gravy. We only had hasenpfeffer when my father went rabbit hunting. The rabbits were cleaned at the kitchen sink; some things are better done out of the sight of small children. After I watched my then-husband clean fish shortly after we were married, I only ate fish sticks for several years. I think the only kind of fish my mother ever cooked were salmon patties (which, oddly enough is one of my comfort foods) but bear no resemblance to creatures that once swam in the ocean.

All of which only demonstrates that much of the visceral reaction we experience with certain foods can be traced to how the food was prepared, along with the deep-seated American aversion to eating some parts of an animal but not others (such as brains, liver, kidneys) .

I became curious about bad recipes initially when I read that many recipes in cookbooks aren’t actually tested prior to publication.

Have you ever followed a recipe in a reputable cookbook, only to find the results dismally disappointing? After many years of cooking, I can generally tell just from reading a recipe whether it sounds right to me. My curiosity about bad recipes was piqued when someone sent me a food section from an old newspaper. The author opens the article, titled “IT’S NOT YOU, IT’S THE RECIPE” by relating the story of a lady whose hobby is trying recipes until she finds the perfect one. In her quest for the perfect crab cake, this cook tried many different versions including several provided by notable cookbook authors. “They were soggy little balls of yuck,” she reported. “Even my husband wouldn’t touch them, which is really amazing. They were too disgusting.”

It may surprise you to learn that most cookbook publishers have no test kitchens. Most newspapers don’t either, and consequently, they can’t test every recipe they print from a cookbook. Most recipes are printed as they appear in cookbooks or from wire services. And while cookbook publishers claim to care about accuracy in recipes, most are unwilling to spend the money to make sure the recipes actually work. In a standard publishing contract, the responsibility of recipe testing is left up to the writers.

Added to the mistakes that may be made somewhere between the writing of the cookbook and its publication, there is another important element to all of this. It translates to the difference between the kitchen of the cookbook author and the kitchen of the person who purchased the cookbook.

One writer noted, “… the curious truth about recipes is that they often produce dramatically different results in different hands in different kitchens…recipes are only partly science; following a recipe is not like solving a quadratic equation. There is play involved, wiggle room, variance, uncertainty, and the person in charge has to know how to adjust.”

I’ll always remember my neighbor Lynn, in Florida, who managed to burn every batch of chocolate chip cookies. It was a recipe I had given to her.

“Lynn!” I said “That’s the recipe on the bag of Nestle Toll House morsels—it’s foolproof!” So I went next door to investigate and discovered that she was tightly squeezing two cookie sheets side by side on her single baking rack. The air couldn’t circulate and the cookies burned.

Over the years, my own cooking/baking techniques have improved (I think) with age. I am also the owner of an old (1940s vintage) Wedgewood stove that requires a little pampering on occasion. I seldom try to bake more than one tray of cookies at a time because the oven isn’t big enough and a second rack would either be too close to the bottom or too near the top. I often make up cookie dough and then just bake one or two dozen for us to eat, refrigerating the remaining cookie dough for another day. I indulge myself with an ample supply of parchment paper to line the cookie sheets. I wouldn’t have been able to afford it, when my sons were growing up. We also ate a lot of spaghetti when my sons were children and to this day, my son Kelly doesn’t particular care to eat spaghetti no matter how good it may be. (They DID all like spaghetti with Cincinnati chili, though. (it’s a Cincinnati thing, spaghetti with chili).

Bottom line, maybe it’s not bad food but actually bad cook. But, I still don’t eat rabbit—no matter how it’s cooked. Do you have a particular aversion to a certain food or the way it’s cooked?

Happy Cooking!

–Sandy