Who was she?
She had a taste for cake. She really got into the Pillsbury Bake-Off. And, she deemed Heloise a sound adviser for keeping the domestic ship afloat.
I’m staring at a 6-inch-thick collection of newspaper and magazine clippings, mainly from the 1950s and ’60s. They are stuffed inside a worn, black binder that I happened upon at a used bookstore in Birmingham. Paying $10 felt like a fair trade for sifting through recipe after recipe that she deemed important enough to keep.
I’m guessing it was a she. It’s not because the majority of the recipes are of the baked goods variety. Baking wasn’t a gender-specific affinity or occupation back then. Nor is it now. It’s because so many recipes are “dainty” — whether made with cookie guns or cans of Carnation evaporated milk. There also is a most interesting piece about whipping up cosmetics in the kitchen. Another clue is a 1966 story ripped from the Food section of the Tampa Tribune titled, “Working Women Like to Bake.”
Was she a working woman of her time? And, with so many stories hailing from the Birmingham News and the Tampa Tribune, did she toggle, despite toddlers, between both cities with regularity?
What’s curious about this collection is that not a single recipe is stained. Did she really cook, or just fantasize about it?
As I finger through the pages of this collection, I pause to wonder what will become of my own. Mine includes hundreds of clippings and handwritten cards. Many are dotted with spills and splotches. Others, like those in the black binder, are clean, because I never attempted them. They are all housed in an old, blue tennis shoe box that some might mistake as trash.
And what, too, of the cookbooks I’ve amassed over the years? There are the ones with dog-eared pages that I use daily. Then, there are the pretty, full-color coffeetable books, some signed by authors whom I admire, and whose creations are hard to duplicate. I keep the latter on the shelves, thinking that, one day, I’ll aspire to make something like Pano Karatassos’ roast chicken with warm potato-tomato salad, from his new “Modern Greek Cooking.” I just need to get up the gumption to pickle tomatoes and confit chicken legs.
That is the difference between the home cook and celebrated chefs with a cookbook to their name. We domestic culinarians aspire to do chefy things, but we are not chefs.
In a recent conversation with food writer and recipe developer Dorie Greenspan, prior to her visit to this year’s Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta Book Festival, she admitted that, when she first started heating things up in the kitchen, her food was complicated. Why? She wanted to cook like a chef. Then, she came to her senses. “Chefs need to be perfect. We don’t,” she said. “There’s no law that says our food has to be chef’s table food. We are not chefs.”
It’s so true. Sometimes, all that I can muster is a plate of buttered pasta. And, you know what? I’m fine with it, especially now that I’ve gone through the journey myself.
Back in the early 2000s, and for a good 15 years, I recall many a day walking to the public library to check out the latest cookbook releases. I pored over them. I read the ingredient list. If it was to my liking, I went further, and imagined the combination of taste and smell. Next step: Look at the instructions, to see if I had the know-how to pull off the cookery. No matter what, I read the introductory paragraph. Every recipe comes with a story. Often, the story is the best part.
In my current position, it’s pretty much Christmas every day. Day after day, book after book arrives in my newsroom mail cubby. I take these tomes home, and fall asleep with them, sticky tabs ready at my nightstand for marking what I think could be dinner winners.
Admittedly, I cook up less than a quarter of them. But, somehow, reserving a recipe, even if I never prepare it, brings satisfaction. That act reminds me that I am still striving for success, that I want to feed superior food to myself and the people around me, even if what ultimately lands on the plate is subpar. (Ask my kids. They have loads of stories about Mom’s mediocre food.)
As the holiday season gets into full swing, kitchen duties can feel overwhelming. We home cooks want to please our people. We might succeed; we might fail. Often, we do both. Nevertheless, it’s not as if we didn’t try.
So, to honor the woman that I know only through recipes that she never made, but instead tucked safely away, I’m about to stain up one of her recipes.
Actually, a whole lot of them. The page is dated Oct. 30, 1958, and it holds numerous fruitcake recipes. I know exactly one person who loves fruitcake: me. This one’s for me — and all of my home cook friends who put aside their favorite dishes so they can figure out how to keep the rest of the table content 365 days of the year.