My brothers and sisters tell me Mom was a good cook. In my mind’s eye, I see the five of them, plus Mom and Dad, gathered around the kitchen table. It’s the 1950s and I am not yet born. My mother has on an apron and her hair is set in soft, small curls. Her children – the youngest still in a high chair – eagerly await the night’s fare. She smiles after grace and serves roast beef, fresh mashed potatoes and uniformly cut green beans. For dessert, everyone gets an oatmeal cookie and a glass of milk for dunking.
OK, that’s a fantasy. And it’s not truly my fantasy or that of my siblings because our mother could never have walked off the set of “Leave It to Beaver.” She may have cooked as a mother of three, then four, then five children, but she was hardly a contented housewife.
It is true, however, that by the time I came along and took my place as the last of six children, she was done cooking. Or at least done cooking normal foods. The ’60s and ’70s were, after all, a time of experimentation. And while Mom had pretty much hung up any apron she might have worn as a young homemaker, she didn’t exactly throw in the towel.
For me, her youngest, she prepared meat loaf with peanut butter.
The recipe is one I had hoped to find recently when my oldest sister shipped me Mom’s only cookbook, the 1975 edition of “The Joy of Cooking.” It’s not her original one, a torn, stained and faded copy that sat on the back corner of the refrigerator. (I wonder now if she received it for a wedding shower in 1949, the year she and our father wed.) My memory of that first book, which was thrown out in the 1970s, is solid but distant. I have a stronger sense of its replacement, the cleaner tome that I am certain she must have set extra money aside to buy. I see her sitting at the kitchen table filling in empty pages, the aroma of her last cigarette hanging in the air.
My own collection of cookbooks, which includes “Joy,” messily takes up three shelves in a kitchen cabinet. I have more in another room and others scattered around the house. Undoubtedly, Mom would find this excessive. I find it excessive. But entirely necessary. I am a reference book zealot, as my mother, a librarian, was, too. The cookbooks are, in my mind, bridges to knowledge. It’s about options.
Perhaps my mother, who died six years ago, had fewer options than I do. She was a nurse in Washington, D.C., just after World War II, and when she met and married our father, a Navy man, she juggled home and a career for a while, but it was more than she could manage.
On the other hand, it may be that one cookbook was enough, that one cookbook contained as little and as much as this woman who wrote poetry and loved books and drama and travel needed. She noted when a recipe was easy and quick, rather than delicious. Even her praise is brief: “Swell!” or “So good!”
I can tell you nothing about what the hand-written recipes or the ones clipped from the daily newspaper reveal about her tastes. Was she a whimsical cook with Monkey Bread, Impossible Pie, German Beer Toast? Was she shaped by the Depression era with Poor Man’s Pie, Grapenut Pudding, Big Momma’s Milk Pie? Was she a homespun cook with Old Bean Recipe? Trendy with Tofu Pizza?
I wish I could tell you. I wish she could tell me.
The most valued discovery for me was a page in the cookbook written in my early teenage script. It’s for Pumpkin Bread, which we made at Christmastime and poured into empty tin cans we saved throughout the year. We then wrapped the baked goods in tissue paper and ribbons and delivered them to neighbors, teachers, the priests at church. It was a frugal, large-family approach to gift-giving.
When I see my own optimistic handwriting all these years later, I can smell the nutmeg and cinnamon of those days. Mom and I would have been alone in the house because, with the older kids out on their own and Dad at work, I was conscripted to be her companion. She would read or nap. I would be busy with a project. Even as a teen, I would hip my way next to her on the couch and we would talk, not about Pumpkin Bread, of course, but the sweet, spicy fragrance increased my own feelings of warmth and safety and connection.
Here’s the most I can tell you about my mother as a cook. She loved peanut butter. It may be that she somehow was indebted to the flavor because of the ease with which it allowed her to fill lunchboxes each morning. Or it may be that she simply had a fondness for the creamy, sweet-and-salty stickiness. All six of us inherited the taste, by the way, and I bet if we each had to choose one food for sustenance on a desert island, it would be peanut butter. It’s one thing even Mom and Dad agreed on.
The cookbook highlights this unifying principle with recipes for Peanut Butter Pie, Peanut Butter Gems, Peanut Butter Sauce, Virginia Peanut Soup.
And the meat loaf with peanut butter? Nowhere to be found. But it was, believe it or not, swell.
4? cups sugar
? teaspoon baking powder
5 cups flour
1? teaspoon each of cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg
2? teaspoon salt
3 teaspoon baking soda
1? cup cooking oil
1? cup water
3 cups pumpkin (1 large can)
6 eggs, beaten
1 box raisins
8 ounces walnuts
10-12 varied-size tin cans, cleaned and dried
Mix together oil and water. Add pumpkin. Stir well. Add eggs. Mix well. Add sugar and beat. Sift together dry ingredients and add a little at a time to batter. Mix in raisins and nuts. Fill ungreased tin cans half full and bake at 325 degrees for 1? hours. Cool thoroughly. Store in refrigerator or freezer.
Yummy Peanut Butter Pie
1 medium-size carton nondairy whipped topping
5 tablespoons peanut butter
? cup powdered sugar
2 tablespoons milk
1-2 small packages cream cheese, softened
1 graham cracker pie crust
Bitter chocolate, grated
Beat together all ingredients. Pour into pie crust. Sprinkle top with grated bitter chocolate. Chill for at least an hour before serving.