Monday, July 4, 2011

Source material

I don't specifically recall growing up with a lot of cookbooks.  Plenty of cooking went on in this house -- both my mother and my grandmother, who lived with us, were wonderful cooks, and my dad was good in the kitchen and on the outdoor grill -- but generally speaking, the culinary music around here was "played by ear" -- or maybe taste buds or the nose.  Recipes, if written, were on cards; however, almost all the food we ate seemed to have been prepared almost by instinct.  From time to time my mother would write down and contribute one or another of our family's favorite recipes to a community or church cookbook, but most of those, I think, were originally acquired from the Wednesday food section of the Memphis Press Scimitar or the Commercial Appeal or the St. Louis Post Dispatch.  Or they came from my aunt Bobbie, who liked to collect recipes and try out new dishes.  But anyway, other than those church ladies' fundraising publications or the like, we didn't have more than just a few cookbooks.

When I was probably still in grade school, Mother received a New Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook for a Mother's Day gift.  It was a ring-binder book with loads of bright color photos of food.  It's still here.  The pictures are much less appetizing than they were way back then -- lots of casseroles with corn flakes on top and hams with pineapple rings and maraschino cherries in the centers.

Also in our home, we had Amy Vanderbilt's Complete Cookbook.  That likely came for Christmas from some of our California relatives.  We thought it was the height of sophistication -- I mean, AMY VANDERBILT!  Fancy schmantzy stuff for the Missouri Bootheel.  Almost three inches thick and more than 800 deckle-edge pages, this hardback meant business.  There were no photographs, no color -- just simple little line illustrations every few pages.

I don't remember that my mother or my grandmother ever used it.

However:  at about the age of thirteen or fourteen, once I'd taken a junior high home ec class (an eighth grade requirement), I felt compelled, nose in air, to check out the Vanderbilt's contents.  What I honed in on (dangling prep; I know) was a cookie recipe -- "Spice Cookies".  Don't remember why.  Undertook to make spice cookies.  I remember it as a big deal.  Three -- count 'em, three -- kinds of spices.  I felt so challenged.  The recipe called for both butter and shortening.  This was back in the day when we didn't have sticks of butter or Crisco wrapped in paper marked off by tablespoon; we had to put a level of water in a liquid measuring cup and then spoon in enough fat to bring the volume to the required line.  It was tedious and tricky.  The dough required refrigeration to firm it up to work with it.  I was so impressed.  They were cutout cookies but I rolled the dough into lengths wrapped in waxed paper (this was before Saran Wrap, even) and when chilled, sliced it to bake.

Anyway, to shorten this tale. . . .  We kids loved the spice cookies and I made them for years.  They became our madeleines -- even now, as adults we can just conjure up their flavor in our minds and recall the sweetness of our childhood.

Although I can't even imagine how many years it's been since I've baked them, I decided last week to make the spice cookies for the FM this past Saturday, so I pulled out the Vanderbilt.  It kind of fell open to the recipe.  It's obvious that page 135 has known its share of daylight.

They were everything I remembered, very unassuming in appearance but tasting oh! so home-y.

But the story of the spice cookies isn't really the point of this post.  The point is this:  Amy Vanderbilt's Complete Cookbook is a cookbook I genuinely like.  It has probably over a thousand recipes in it, it's well-written and easy to follow, it's NOT full of exotic or particularly complicated recipes and as best I can tell, virtually none of them calls for ingredients I couldn't find right here at any of the local groceries (and that's saying something).  It's an extremely practical cookbook and it's pretty well comprehensive.  And I'd always been oddly charmed by the drawings -- they're very precise and geometric, perfect circles for dinner plates and triangles for cheeses.

I appropriated it at some point and took it back to Dallas with me and I have made a number of dishes from it (although not the one with the potato-stuffed prunes).  Back about twenty years ago my friend Laura asked me to teach her to cook, and it was the book we used and from which she learned.

I guess it was around then that I took a moment to check to see when it was published (1961).  And oh, my stars!  Just take a gander at the title page and the illustrator's credit.

Who would've thunk?

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