Tuesday, September 25, 2007


Sliced muenster cheese (which I thought was called monster cheese) and tomato aspic are the foods I associate with eating at my great grandmother's house. These foods reflect a child's memory of food and not what I imagine her approach to cooking would have been, given her incredible creativity and ability outside of the kitchen to use scraps of this and that to make something usable or decorative. Whether she was braiding discarded pantyhose, er, nylons, into welcome mats or making belt buckles and egg cartons into Christmas decorations, she always seemed to be making something out of nothing. To this day, if I see something particularly creative--not a necklace made from a craft kit available at a store--I think, "Hmmm, Grandma Reardon would have made that. Better."

When my parents handed me a heavy, rectangular, wrapped item for my birthday I could have guessed (or hoped!) that it was a vintage cookbook. But I did not expect this, The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book, 1948, by Fannie Merritt Farmer, which belonged to my great grandmother. It has a couple bookmarks, really scraps of paper torn from magazines, and little scribbled notes from her. It's hard to believe this was hers and now it's mine.

In some ways, this book has demystified her approach to things which always seemed so her. Intellectually, I know that a lot of people who were born around the time she was used things to their fullest. Wrapping a sandwich in the waxed bag from a box of cereal, or saving scraps of paper for some potential future use is not as unique to my great grandmother as I'd like to think. This cookbook is evidence of an approach to cooking that seems more flexible than a lot of books being written now.

For example, in the chapter on Gingerbread and Doughnuts (yes! a chapter on gingerbread and doughnuts!), the introduction suggests that if the recipe uses 1 1/2 cups of flour the pan should be "about 7x7" and a range of cooking times are given for a "moderately slow oven." Many chapters start with a basic recipe, and underneath list a number of variations or suggestions. It seems more likely that a person cooking from this book, rather than a more prescriptive one, would read through the variations and say, "Hmm, I don't have X but I can try Y." That's not to say people aren't creative now, it just seems that Fannie Farmer set an expectation of creativity for cooks using this book.

Browsing through the 38 chapters, including "griddlecakes and waffles," "soup garnishes," and "jams, marmalades, and conserves," I am overwhelmed by the number of new recipes I have to try. Yes, as a vegetarian, there is an entire middle section of the book I can ignore--from plucking chickens to boiling terrapins--but if I only cooked from this book I would still have enough to fill this blog, and our plates, for years. This isn't the last you've heard about this book, and I hope I can capture some of the creativity infused in the book and in my memories of my great grandmother.


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Me said...

Thanks! I'll check it out!