I began learning to cook when I was nine; simple tasks: frying an egg, dicing onions, peeling potatoes, sloppy joes. Once I grew confident in the kitchen, I was eager to try anything. In the early 60s, Golden Press released Betty Crocker’s New Boys and Girls Cookbook, with its bright yellow cover depicting happy children, color photos of recipes that made food look like toys and party decorations. I received a copy for my 10th birthday. It was spiral bound so the pages would lay flat. Brilliant! Tuna melts, hot dog crowns, a chocolate chip cookie recipe I use still. Pancakes that looked like elephants and bears, or branded with initials. There were menu plans. It was Middle America middle class white cooking for youth. But it got me started.
I outgrew that cookbook quickly. I needed to learn more. Mommy owned the red-checked Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook, circa 1960. Inside its heavy cover, a six-ring binder of menu mountains to climb. Braising, stewing, vegetables and sauces. Jams, jellies, preserves of the highest order. Diagrams of cuts of meat and instructions for every phase of cooking. Baking! I would sit and flip through the tabbed dividers to read the contents, deciding what to read, then which to try.
After a year or so, I pulled Cooking for Young Homemakers, 1963 Culinary Arts Encyclopedic Cookbook from the shelf. Thumb indexed, this was serious study on how to manage the family kitchen. The green of mushy peas with the title framed like a gold-embossed book plate, this was seriously the key to the highway. Before Julia Child, before the Joy of Cooking, there were Fanny Farmer, Better Homes and Gardens, and this one. A mom would know flank from shoulder and the way to the fluffiest icing on a chocolate cake by the time she has worked her way through cover to cover.
My mother indulged me, and taught me well. There were no printed recipes for her standards: meatloaf, chili, pork chops in cream gravy with boiled potato and sliced sweet onion, stuffed peppers, sunnyside-up eggs basted to perfection in a pool of bacon grease.This was on-the-job kitchen training, an apprenticeship; make no mistake about it. As the oldest of then four, it was also handy for her to pass on the skills.
I took on more challenges. Pot roast, spaghetti sauce and meatballs, meals to fill a family’s appetites. I earned numerous Girl Scout badges for cooking, baking, and hospitality. I was trusted with more and more knowledge, then responsibility. Just weeks after my 14th birthday, my mother died suddenly. She had been ill for months, but doing her best to hide it. Some days Mommy would be in bed when I got home from school. She would ask me to start the dinner prep, instructing me a step and stage at a time, calling down the stairs, “Okay, dice a large onion. Then sautė the onion before you add the ground beef….”
The skill she gave me that I value the most is two-fold: keeping the shelves stocked with staples, and how to turn whatever is available into a meal worth eating. Mommy had a way of serving a great dinner, no matter when in it was Dad’s pay cycle. I was an adult before I realized the backstory to pancakes or cereal for dinner, which I always thought was a treat. As a young adult on a student budget, and ever since, this knowledge has served me very well. Now that it is Day 25 of my COVID-19 induced home retreat, it is even more valuable. Each meal is both sustenance and tribute.