Among my most treasured possessions are two cookbooks that belonged to my mother. Both are simple lined notebooks; one a brown spiral-bound Hilroy “science note book” that cost 79 cents; the other a sort of marble-patterned one in which my mother began recording knitting patterns and food recipes long before she was married. It’s vintage late-1940s, I would say, because her maiden name and birthplace of Brokenhead, Manitoba, are written on the inside front page in her careful hand.
I get a particular pang when I page through this notebook and try to picture my young mother writing out recipes and knitting instructions for her future. The first knitting patterns are for a “Baby Set”: jacket, bonnet, booties, mittens: knit 1, pearl 1, knit 1, pearl 3. There follow some rather complicated-looking directions for men’s socks, a ladies’ angora beret, ankle socks, slippers, and something called a ripple cap. These last few patterns are recorded later in my mother’s life, I suspect, once my dad, sister, and I had come along. Her handwriting seems more confident as the pages progress. Like the picture had become clearer.
The bulk of the notebook is taken up with recipes. As I read through them, I can taste and smell some of the baked goods or meals they helped my mother create when I was growing up. Baking Powder Biscuits; Doughnuts (tossed in a paper bag with icing sugar, the best); Date Cake; Pumpkin Pie; Rice Pudding; Chocolate Flecked Cake. (There are also some, shall I say, “interesting” recipes for Tomato Soup Cake and Miracle Whip Cake that I definitely do not remember—or have blanked out!)
Last night I decided to bake Chocolate Flecked Cake for old time’s sake. The page that this recipe is written on is wonderfully marked with repeated use, and the corner was evidently the victim of at least one spill that made the ink bleed, so I had to make a few logical guesses. Judging by taste, I think I got it more or less right:
3/4 cup sugar
1 cup milk
2 cups flour
3 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
2 oz semi-sweet chocolate, grated
1 tsp vanilla
3 egg whites
Cream butter and sugar. Add milk alternately with sifted dry ingredients. Add vanilla and grated chocolate (use a coarse grater). [This is where it got tough, and the texture of my cake, not quite as I remember, tells me that I didn’t quite get it right.] Put chocolate mixture and fold egg whites until they are stiff but not dry. [I took this to mean beat the egg whites until stiff but not dry, then fold them into the chocolate mixture.] Bake 50 minutes in a 350 oven. [Mine was more than done at 40 minutes, but my oven runs consistently hot.]
I’m inspired to bake more of the goodies in this book, and to ask my aunts (my mom’s sisters) for help with interpretation. But more ambitiously, I feel inspired to compile a keepsake book of my mom’s, aunts’, and grandmother’s recipes, along with stories and photos of the special occasions and everyday family meals at which we shared their creations.
Certain must-haves for this book come instantly to my mind, like my grandma’s bread and donuts, holubtsi (cabbage rolls), perogies, my mom’s apple rolls. I’m sure my sister and cousins will have their own must-haves, and I’m excited at the prospect of talking to them and my aunts about this project in the months to come. And, through her writing on these beautifully stained and well-loved pages, and through my sister’s and my memories of the food that resulted from those stains, my mom will be part of the process.