Monday, April 9, 2012

A Mid-Century Modern Woman

It all started Saturday at dinner when my Aunt Sue mentioned to me that she'd found a well-worn, yellowing and randomly spattered notebook that once belonged to my late Grandmother, Florence. She had been going through Grandma's things and noticed the notebook, front cover bearing the name of her alma mater Western Illinois State Teachers College, among her collection of cookbooks. Born in 1916 Grandma would have attended the college during the mid to late 1930s where where studied education and later became a first-grade teacher.

My interest and my ears immediately perked up -- known as the historian and foodie of the clan Aunt Sue thought it befitting to bestow upon me this volume containing an early collection of newspaper clippings, handwritten menus and, later on, typewritten recipes from, I assume, early in her single and married years. Now, dear reader, this is not her 3x5 recipe box, favorite church cookbook or even a popular mass-market tome of the day but merely an idea book, a scrapbook with pasted clipping on almost every page. I thanked Aunt Sue and told her I would read it like a novel -- page by page -- and that I undoubtedly be thoroughly entertained. It would be a hoot (I think that's Aunt Sue's word, not mine) as I imagined page after page of recipes for random fruits, vegetables and meats suspended in aspic or other gelatinous form.

After dinner we walked to Aunt Sue's car and she produced the volume. Through a tear in the front cover I immediately noticed the words "Prune Pie" peeking through. Jackpot. If the rest of the recipes were like this I was holding a piece of culinary history in my hands. Albeit a dated, stylized one reflecting the trends and fads of the time. I had to dig deeper.

Page 1 -- Date-Filled Oatmeal Cookies. Over Night Ginger Cookies. Sounds good to me, could pass for current cookery. Next recipe -- Invalid Pudding. Steamed Pudding. Sandwich Spread. Prune Pie. Ok -- more of what I expected. I was intrigued. Epicurious. I had to try these recipes.

Cooking through someone's cookbook -- certainly not a new idea (Julie/Julia Project anyone?) but one that promises a journey of some sort. A total immersion in another style, culture, time period. Usually when writers cook through a cookbook it's to be a student of culinary standard, something elemental, classical. But cooking through the 40s and into the 50s? I am not sure many cooks (or eaters) want to go there. Remember the aspics? They are in Grandma's notebook. Ham Loaf is one of my personal least-favorites and it's in there - multiple times in multiple forms. Gum Drop Salad? Yikes. But these are the things that Grandma dutifully cut out of the local paper and carefully glued, a page at a time, into this college-ruled notebook. She evidently thought the recipes to be interesting, practical, or necessary to begin her cooking years.

Grandma passed away on October 10, 2011. On the eve of what would have been her 96th birthday I begin a journey. A journey to cook through her cook book. To learn and understand the trends of the time so that I might learn where American home-cooking has come from and what it is today. There is nothing pretentious about the recipes in Grandma's notebook but something that reminds me of home and (electric) hearth. American women did a huge amount of cooking for their families and like today they looked for ways to make meal time interesting, adventurous, and nourishing. I want to know how Grandma and women like her did it. I want to follow the recipes and take steps in her apron for a little while.

This is my blog.


  1. Oooh! How exciting! I can't wait to follow you on your adventure. Cheers!

  2. I can't wait to read your blog and follow Grandma's cooking adventure! How fun it will be to see what YOU get to concoct! Good
    luck with that prune pie.