Of cookbooks and aprons and cooking from scratch…

It’s funny how things converge.

The Earth Day Fair convened in the common rooms at the College last Saturday. Fascinating people were there with fascinating stuff. Some women displayed repurposed furniture painted with milk and chalk paints; they had a bench made from an old Jenny Lind bed, and vintage chairs and tables, all beautifully appointed with rich colors and contrast.

There was a bike connected to circuits–one could (I didn’t, but it was great fun to watch my colleague JD) pedal and pedal and pedal until one generated enough energy to light an electric bulb.

A woman sat with an awl, engraving intricate designs on dried gourds, and, in this city with deep ceramic roots, an artist slapped a clumsy blob of clay onto a wheel and spun it, magically and methodically, into a graceful pot. He talked, all the while, with some young Earth Day Fair visitors about the clay and the process and the importance of the art.

A watershed conservancy displayed hand-painted water barrels. Jewelers and fabric artists offered vibrant wares. Students in the biological sciences programs sold plants they had started from seeds–watermelons, morning glories, cucumbers.

And Nick of Shanachie Books had tables set up in a horseshoe display, brimming with gently used books, all with themes related to Earth Day. Right on top, waiting for me, was Gladys Taber’s Stillmeadow Cookbook.

I bought the book and spent the rest of the day marching toward a quiet space of reading time.

I can’t remember when I discovered Gladys Taber’s work; it might have been when I volunteered at the Mayville Library when Jim was an infant. Her writing grabbed me, and I read all of her books that I could find.

There’s a genre, I think, of post-World War II writings–city refugee books by women writers who fled the metropolitan life with their families and, prepared or not, skilled or not, cognizant of just what they might be getting into or not, set up housekeeping in some charm-filled, drafty, many-roomed, historical country house.

Shirley Jackson wrote about that transition in her wonderful, funny memoirs–such a contrast to her scary, scary books. Madeleine L’Engle detailed her family’s move to New England, to the land and house they dubbed Crosswicks, the home of the real life star-gazing rock.

And Gladys Taber wrote about it in her memoirs about Stillmeadow, the farm that, if I remember correctly, she and her husband bought with another couple. One husband died, I think; the other left, and the women and the children stayed on and created a rich country life.

I remember a professor, in undergrad English major days, expounding on how seldom US writers wrote about food. If I had read Gladys Taber that early on, I would have argued with him. In her gentle stories about the children and the house, the land and the visitors, Taber considers food an indispensable part of her narrative. I remember finding a recipe for stew embedded in a story about visitors from the city who came to visit and fell in love with Stillmeadow. I copied that out, longhand, yea those many years ago, and took note, too, of other Taber kitchen tips.

Finding Gladys Taber’s Stillmeadow Cookbook was a real coup. Originally written in 1947, my pristine copy was reprinted in 1965. Taber’s wonderful introduction tells the story of her cooking development–from newlywed disasters to hard-won competence on the farm. I am savoring my browse through this book–it’s a cookbook-memoir, so it’s good reading–and I have marked out several recipes to try already.

Luxuriating in this lovely, reminiscent, ramble through a cookbook from a simpler (maybe) day, I realize this week presents other echoes of that cooking time. Terri Mercer posts about a wonderful event her organization is having–an event that calls participants to share their stories about aprons. I am plunged into memories of the late fifties and early sixties, when my mother kept her Sunday dress on to fix Sunday dinner, but protected it with an apron.

And an article in our local Times-Recorder about people struggling to eat on severely cut food stamps made me think back to the days of one income, seven healthy eaters, and the never-empty cookie jar. (The article centered on people in a small town that straddles two counties. Because of food distribution regulations, people on fixed incomes can’t cross the county line to take advantage of local food pantries, so a woman who can see a food pantry from her living room window can’t get food from it to supplement her empty larder at the end of the month. Instead, she has to drive ten miles to a pantry that IS in her county. There’s no meanness involved; the big-hearted operators of the food pantry are constrained by the regulations of the food distributors who help them feed hungry people.)

All of this got me pondering about cooking and food and how our attitudes toward those things have changed in my lifetime. I think about my lovely former student who said that her favorite food was mac and cheese. I told her I’d discovered a great recipe, and she jutted her chin toward me, puzzled. Her mac and cheese delight came from a box mix; she had never eaten the made-from-scratch kind.

I think, too, about a young mom who was placed as a worker with a Literacy Volunteers Association I worked with long ago. She was maybe just 20, had two young boys, and her husband was unable to work. She went to a government sponsored food pantry and brought the bag of groceries they gave her to work. She was disgusted; the bag was full of things like flour and sugar, rice and pasta.

“What am I supposed to do with THAT?” she asked. “My kids can’t eat that.” She had never yet, in her young life, baked a cookie from scratch or cooked a meal that didn’t start from a mix.

I am drawn, by Terri’s apron tales, by Gladys Taber’s recipes, by the challenge people have in trying to stretch their food budget–and food stamps, for those that need them, have truly shrunk in amount—to looking back to the days of Sunday dresses covered by aprons and simmering stews and family dinners. Maybe we have thrown the turkey out with the bathwater; maybe, although I have no intention of making bread from scratch, giving up my KitchenAid blender, or doing without my microwave, we can learn something from the days of cooking from scratch.

The Farmers’ Market opens tomorrow morning. What a perfect time to think about how I cook and how we eat.

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