I have such fond memories of cooking with my grandmother. She was an accomplished cook, whether on a grand scale at the holidays or just the two of us baking together. I can still see her slim fingers, with her wedding ring worn thin from the years, leveling a cup of flour, scraping the white mound off the top with a knife. She made the tallest angel food cakes I have ever known, bar none. She was a canner, a freezer, a comfort cooker and an accomplished hostess.
After my grandmother died, we found a box of calendars going back to the 1960’s, each dinner party meticulously chronicled with details such as who attended, where they sat and what was served for each course. She was a new bride during the Depression, saving every tiny scrap and using it for another purpose. I have habits I learned from her that I cannot shake – saving plastic bags, cooking every chicken carcass into stock and freezing egg whites in ice cube trays.
When I first encountered the humble, plastic spiral bound book, Out of Vermont Kitchens, compiled by the Women of St. Paul’s Cathedral in Burlington, printed locally by Queen City Printers, I was enchanted by the simple ink drawings that accompany the recipes. That was at first glance, but I quickly became fascinated with the recipes inside and the history they convey.
This cookbook is in its 20th printing – originally produced in 1939. All of the recipes are handwritten, in ballpoint and in fountain pen. The differences in handwriting are disconcerting at first, some flowery and elegant, the writer probably already an older woman when the book was first printed, others blocky and more modern in style. Each recipe is signed by the contributor, but many of the women have omitted their own first names in favor of the formal use of their husband’s names preceded by a “Mrs.”.
There are plenty of recipes in the book that are products of their time in history – a can of condensed mushroom soup here and a canned ham or gelatin salad there. But many of them are the real deal, right down to the lack of standardized measurement – one calls for “Butter the size of an egg” to be melted into a white sauce.
I experimented with several of these recipes, the Cheese Dreams crab canapés that asked for a half package of Velveeta (How big was the original package? Can I just use cheddar instead?), the Brown Bread wanting sour milk (How sour?), and the skeptically sounding but ultimately rewarding Carrot Pie using raw finely grated carrots.
The Noodle Ring and the Salmon Loaf were interesting, and I’m glad I tried them, but I’d prefer to enjoy the elegant Beef in Red Wine or the simple luncheon of the Cheese Layer Bake. Real old fashioned Doughnuts and an Apple Pie evoke grandmotherly kitchens everywhere. But the Streusel-Filled Coffee Cake was the one that gave me a sweet pang of memory, for my grandmother’s had tasted exactly the same.