The Cook BookEssays, Food and Drink — By Amelia Rhodes on July 2, 2012 at 5:25 am
The red and white checkered cookbook splays on the table between us. The book bears evidence of sixty years of careful use. Red electrical tape binds the cover together, and sections of the book turn freely from the binding. The pages, while worn, appear well-preserved — lacking the glued together effect that half the pages of the cookbook in my kitchen cupboard display.
If this cookbook could talk, oh the stories it could tell. Being presented to a young bride making her home on a military base far from home. Offering up recipes to a young mother with one child on the hip and another at her feet. Pages falling open to familiar spots while six children crowd in and out of the kitchen in various stages of helping and hindering the dinner process. Being packed in boxes and moved again and again. Other cookbooks have come and gone, but after sixty-one years, this one is still the treasured favorite.
Wrinkled hands belie their age as her fingers nimbly flip through the pages in search of the answers to my questions. A stack of index cards held together with a rubber band sits in front of me as I race the pen across one card, attempting to copy down her special instructions as she flips from one recipe to the next.
The fact is that no one bakes fruit pies as delicious as my husband’s eighty-year-old grandmother, and I’m determined to capture all her recipes before it’s too late.
“Well, these recipes are pretty simple. They’re nothing fancy,” she insists while flipping to the next page.
“Oh, they’re pretty special to us, Grandma. Besides, my cookbook doesn’t even have a recipe for a strawberry-rhubarb pie. I found one on the internet, but it wasn’t even close to yours,” I reply.
She looks up at me for a second then says, “Don’t forget about blueberry-rhubarb.”
I pull out another index card and say, “Do tell!” My stack of recipes grows.
“Now, the instructions always say to bake the pies at 400 for 40-50 minutes. But I’ve found that baking them at 375 for an hour just works much better.”
Phooey on Pinterest. I’ve got Grandma.
“You can see it’s really quite simple,” she says with a slight shrug of her shoulders. “I’m really not that great at it. I just follow the cookbook.”
I squint my eyes at her, not believing a word of it, but also not brave enough to contradict her. She adds special instructions, not written anywhere other than in her memory, to each recipe that she reads to me out of the treasured cookbook.
1 ¾ cups of sugar, not the full 2. Foil around the edges of the pies until the last fifteen minutes of baking.
I scribble furiously.
Two years ago, my sister-in-law and I stood in her kitchen, our hands covered in flour as we sought to master the grand prizes – her home made apple pie with her famous crust.
I cocked my head to one side, as my dough covered hands fumbled with the crumbly dough.
“And, now here’s the trick that I learned from my friend.”
My breath caught in anticipation, and I willed my brain, “Burn this forever in your memory, remember, remember, remember.”
I muttered how I can’t get it just right as Grandpa walked into the kitchen. He smirked and said in a taunting voice, “Well, you know…she does have sixty years of practice.”
I chuckled and eased the pressure on myself. It’s the law of 10,000 hours. If you do anything for 10,000 hours, you’re bound to master it. She obviously has. I’m about 9,999 hours behind her. I probably don’t have enough lifetime left to catch up.
My pie wasn’t as pretty as hers always are, but it tasted pretty close. I tucked the recipe away in my purse for safekeeping, and I happily brought home to my husband a piece of his childhood.
Other family members heard that I had a pie-making lesson and begged me to share the recipe with them. My husband looked at me and said, “Don’t share it. If they want the recipe, they can go spend a day with her in the kitchen.”
I fear that in a society of internet ease –- with places like Allrecipes and Pinterest available at the touch of a fingertip to give us any recipe we could ever imagine, and some we wouldn’t ever dare to imagine — that we may forget to turn off the technology and return to actually cooking in the kitchen with our elders. Before the internet there recipe cards written by hand and shared in person. And before written cards we had oral tradition lacking exact measurements. Once upon a time, you learned the art of cooking from your elders by standing next to her and copying exactly what she did.
Sure these recipe sites are wonderful, and when I’m bored with tuna noodle casserole and meatloaf I can find exotic recipes that require ingredients that Grandma’s never even heard of. That’s fine and well.
But standing in the kitchen with a woman like her, gleaning from her sixty-one years of cooking, I learn so much more than recipes. I get glimpses of a life I will never know –when the milkman delivered milk to your back door, when families just had one car, when you got married and expected to stay that way until you died. I learn more of her and thereby my husband’s heritage. I literally rub shoulders with a woman who raised six kids and loved the same man for over sixty years. I don’t get that on Pinterest.
All recipes can give me ratings of recipes from over one hundred users. But none of them know my name or love on my children. They don’t bring home the taste of Christmas and Thanksgiving and birthdays.
I’ve found some great recipes on the internet. Some of them may even become our own family legends. But the greatest treasure in my kitchen will always be the stack of recipes written on plain white 3×5 index cards that I scribbled while sitting across from a family legend of her own, who dispensed advice and encouragement beyond sugar and flour and Crisco that warm summer day.