May 7, 2004
A Legacy of Cooking

A little over four years ago, I was sitting in a church in Park Ridge, listening to my brother give the eulogy for my Austrian grandmother's funeral. It was the day after my wedding, and so a very emotional time all around. My grandmother had died at the age of 98 at the end of a very long slow decline, though, so it could have been much worse. My brother described how my grandmother loved cooking and was the best cook any of us had ever met. Then he went on to say "and the thing was, you could never get her to sit down and enjoy her own food - she was always jumping up to get another spoon, another dish, to stir something on the stove" and as if a little light bulb popped above my head (ping!) I thought, "Oh my God, that's ME." In an odd way, I was really pleased to discover this bit of Grandma in me.

In addition to a love of cooking and some really irritating habits when guests are around (Meg, will you sit down???) I also inherited some lovely old dining furniture, some cherished kitchen tools and a cookbook, The American Woman's Cook Book, edited by Ruth Berolzheimer (1940 edition). I can't say I have used very many recipes from this book, but I love paging through it, stopping to browse here and there. Actually, I find it hard to believe my grandmother used many of the recipes either, as they are for the most part very bland, overworked recipes. (How many times do you need to cook a carrot before you serve it? Answer: many.)

However it is a delightful mixture of inspired good advice (see How to Care for Fats), strange "scientific" facts (TOO MUCH MEAT AND EGGS should not be included as they may give rise to excessive putrefication in the digestive tract) and a unique view of our cultural history. The section on entertaining (The Friends Who Honor Us) has this gem: "Many woman can manage almost any form of entertainment without the help of a maid." Well, whew! That said, it goes on to make some very useful pointers on how to ensure that the party goes smoothly if you are so destitute as to not have a maid.

There is something homespun, almost amateurish, about the whole book, from the garish illustrations (courtesy of the Carnation Milk Company, Land O' Lakes Ceameries and a list of about 20 other companies and institutes) to the sharp advice of an experienced housewife. It's addictive.

Most of all, though, I love this book because my grandmother owned it and I can imagine her, a young foreign wife, choosing an American cook book so that she could please her increasingly American son and fit in in Chicago in the forties. She kept some typical American habits to the day she stopped cooking (There's always room for Jello!) and so perhaps she did pick up something from this book. It might have been the Jello, or it might have been the advice on how to properly pack a schoolboy's lunch box ("Many attractive boxes are now made with a vacuum bottle which fits the box. These are highly desirable."). She also left behind three grandchildren and four great-grandchildren (so far!) and far too few recipes.

I'll try to find some pictures for this later tonight, but for the moment you'll have to imagine my grandmother: a very small, chubby woman with silvery hair and big blue eyes, she barely came up to my shoulder by the time I was an adult. And she loved cooking for her very appreciative grandchildren.

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