My mother received this cookbook as a wedding gift and passed it on to me many years ago. It remains one of my favorites, not because of the recipes though there are some good ones, but because this book is responsible for kindling my love of cooking and poetry, especially poetry that rhymes.
The recipes are punctuated with light verse to serve as mnemonics for proper technique. For example, the captions to a series of photos illustrating loaves of bread read:
This is the well-made bread about which we’ve all read;
It’s so easy to make, so come, on, let’s bake.
See what results if the oven’s too hot;
decreased volume and over-brown top.
If the oven’s too slow, the crust will be pale,
the texture’ll be porous; it’s sure to fail.
In homemade bread, especially rye,
you know there’s more than meets the eye.
and on and on through yeasted breads and rolls, specialty loaves, quick breads and muffins.
My mother was a competent cook though not an enthusiastic one. She fully embraced the post-WWII convenience foods such as frozen TV dinners, boxed macaroni and cheese, and canned soup. It seemed that for years everything was made with a can of Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup, with its sponge-like brown bits suspended in a gelatinous goo. I loved those meals.
They were children of immigrants, my parents, who left the Bronx in the 1950s, first to New Jersey, then to Rockland County, New York, where my mother found work as a school teacher while my dad worked a salesman ("plastics"). From the outside, our's was a typical suburban development home. Not so inside.
My mother was a long-time subscriber to both Women’s Day and Family Circle magazines, with their projects for the thrifty homemaker (“Feed a Family of Four on Fifty Dollars a Week!” “Transform Your Home with Color in One Weekend!” and “Bring the Outdoors In with Rustic Cedar Shingles!” The latter project transformed a wall in my parents’ bedroom with hours of furious hammering.).
My father was a scavenger who often arrived home with odds and ends he’d picked up while making his sales calls in and around New York City. The combination of mom's and dad's talents was on full display in our kitchen where one wall was covered with silver metallic wallpaper illustrated with scenes from the Folies Bergere, done up in pink and black; the floor was covered with carpet tiles in every color; and the cabinet pulls were ringed with the colored plastic inserts to 45 RPM records. My mother made new curtains for every season, some quite beautiful.
The crowning glory of the kitchen was the table--a wood slab that my dad refinished with pockmarks to make it appear aged--suspended from the ceiling with picture wire. One day I arrived home from school and Noah, our large white German shepherd, was reclining on the table as it swung gently to and fro. Meals at that table were an adventure as one had to take care to avoid the wires while passing dishes. You could lose an arm. At my mother's insistence, my dad eventually anchored the table to the floor with more wire.
Years of preparing meals for our family of six, on top of full-time work, took their toll. When I was in my early teens, my mother declared a moratorium on cooking. My two sisters and I would have to take over responsibility for dinners several times a week. She delivered this news as if it were a punishment and my sisters took it as such but I thought it a grand opportunity to experiment. We were told we could cook whatever we liked; my mother would shop though she refused to buy exotic ingredients, like ground black pepper, or nutmeg. “You don’t need that,” she said, crossing off those items on our shopping lists.
I remember my attempt at Moussaka, the Greek casserole of eggplant and ground beef baked under a layer of béchamel. Is there a sound more dreaded to the cook than that of diners' forks silently pushing a poorly executed entrée around a dinner plate? Finally, my father put his fork down and looked across the table at my mother. “Renee,” he said, mouthing his words, “I don’t like it.” The leftovers were fed to Noah, who devoured them without complaint and in short order deposited them on the carpet-tiled kitchen floor.