There are six of them. One’s missing a cover. They’re all well-worn, tattered edges, split spines. Two of them are actual cook-books made by someone else. Gimli Gourment Recipes published by the Johnson Memorial Hospital Auxiliary is in pretty good shape. It’s still got its cover. The recipes are identified by women in the community who donated them. Pie Pastry by Joey Thordarson. Doughnuts by Mrs. A. Kasupski. There’s Lekuchen and Snickerdoodles. Jello Graham Wafer Cake and something called Broken Glass Dessert. It’s made with lemon, lime and cherry “jellow” (sic). There are a lot of hamburger recipes. But the Icelandic quality of Gimli is evident with Kyofa, an Icelandic Meat Loaf. There’s no date on the cookbook but you know there wasn’t much money around because there are a lot of jello recipes and casseroles. People still made their own pickles. There are recipes for Bread and Butter Pickles and Fourteen Day Pickles.
It is impossible to tell where the second published cookbook came from because its cover is long gone. The pages are well thumbed and a bit stained from the ingredients of many recipes. It, too, owes its contents to various housewives, although these come from farther afield. Raisin, Date, and Nut Pie has been contributed by Mrs. T. S. Arason from Cypress River, Man. Million Dollar Pickle is from Mrs. F. A. Finson of Port Arthur, Ont. There are a lot of pies and tarts. Vinegar tarts. Lemon cheese tarts. Coconut tarts. Puddings are important. Part way through the book there is a loose page of Household Hints. “When silver becomes dull” it says, “rub it with a piece of potato dipped in baking soda.” “When making mayonnaise and the white of the egg to the mixture after the vinegar is added. This will prevent curdling.” These were the precursors to Martha Stewart, TV and the Internet.
Here, there are pages of recipes for pickles, relishes and jams. With these recipes you can make Watermelon Rind Pickle or pickle cherries. With all this chopping, kneading boiling, baking there was still a few minutes for leisure because there is one page for making cocktails and cooling drinks.
This book provided all sorts of support to the new housewife. In a tine of little medical assistance and few medications, it provides pages dedicated to Invalid Cookery. It details the contents of a liquid diet, a soft solid diet, a light diet, a full diet. It explains how to make gruels, how to albumenize milk, to make junket, and beef tea. It reveals its heritage with two pages on how to make flatbrauð, mysuostur and pönnukökur. That’s flatbread, a whey cheese and crepes rolled hot with brown sugar. All Icelandic.
But it is not these books that interest me as much as the other four my mother made for herself. Many of the recipes are in her tidy hand. Others have been clipped and pasted into the pages with her notes beside them. Although her parents both came from Northern Ireland, there are no Irish recipes here. She married at sixteen into an Icelandic Canadian family and community and became so much part of the Icelandic tradition that she even learned to make Rosettes.
The first recipe in the book gives the recipe for rosettes: a cup of flour, a cup of milk, a pinch of salt, 2 eggs and a teaspoon of sugar. It explains how to mix the ingredients but in a separate note to one side it says to “Dip Rosette iron into hot fat to heat. Shake off surplus fat. Dip into batter, making sure no batter goes over the edge of the mold. Dip into fat and fry till Golden Brown. Then remove and place on brown paper.” These Rosettes when made properly have the shape of a rose are light, crunchy and usually topped with a dollop whipped cream and a dab of strawberry jam. The recipe floods me with memories of watching my mother holding what looked like a branding iron, making each rosette individually, while I and my brother waited away from the hot of hot fat, knowing that we’d each get one along with instructions to go outside and play.
The pages are nearly as soft as tissue. Many of the recipes are blurred from having water or milk dropped on them. The recipe for Chinese Chews, becomes more obscure as it goes down the page.
There’s a recipe for homemade Marshmallow, for Julia’s Perogies and Holopchi. The recipes are not organized as in a formal cookbook under categories. They follow one after the other as my mother discovered them.
In the three ring binder there is a recipe for Snowballs. I pity anyone who did not grow up; having Snowballs at Christmas. They were made weeks in advance and packed into small boxes and put away until guests came for Christmas. Sinfully rich, made of mashed potatoes, icing sugar, peppermint flavoring, Baker’s chocolate, corn starch, and coconut, they melted in your mouth.
My mother loved desserts. Her lemon pies were legendary. No guest could leave without having had a raisin tart or two. However, she made other things we clamored for. Many Sundays when she asked us what we wanted for supper, we said rabbit pie. Browned rabbit, baked with vegetables and gravy, sealed with a tender pie crust.
There is a recipe for pinwheel sandwiches. When my mother made these for special occasions, my brother and I would volunteer to help make round sandwiches in return for getting to eat the ends. The bread loaf was sliced lengthwise, spread with softened cheese, then rolled around a pickle so when the roll was sliced, the sandwich had a green centre and a spiral of yellow cheese.
There’s a recipe for stew and dumplings, a dish that filled the house and had us looking around the corner into the kitchen to see how soon it would be ready. It was a family meal, first just for us, then after married, for our families as well. And in her recipe books as we grew older there is evidence of our lives. My ex is enshrined with “Mary Anne’s Pancakes.” My son with “Val’s Waffles.” My brother’s teenage girlfriend is remembered with “Nina’s Icebox Cookies.”
There are recipes for puffed wheat cake and rice crispy cake. My mother made it in large pans. She kept sacks of puffed wheat under the cupboard. No matter how busy she was there was always time for making puffed wheat cake or rice crispy cake. She had a sweet tooth and it shows in her cook books. She passed that sweet tooth on to me. I have a love for cream puffs, calla lilies, vinarterta, and pies of all descriptions, including green tomato pie.
We all learned to cook. My mother was tolerant in the kitchen. It was a domain she was happy to share. My father cooked. His specialty was fresh water fish. I cook. My brother cooked. You can’t be around someone who enjoys cooking so much and not catch some of that enthusiasm.
The last hard covered scribbler stops part way through. There are blank pages but then I stumble on a recipe for pumpkin pie. There is nothing special about it. Not like my daughter’s ice cream Sunday pumpkin pie. It’s just a regular pumpkin pie recipe. But it is written with a black marker in large letters. My mother wrote it out, I realize, after she got macular degeneration. She could no longer read her usual recipes. In these large dark letters is her tragedy. Finding ways to be able to read, to be able to cook, for a little while longer before she had to stop altogether, then go into a nursing home.
It’s all there. A woman’s life. A family’s life. The memories. The people. The years when times were hard and hamburger and jello filled the pages and later, when times were better, there was roast beef and Yorkshire pudding recipes. It’s all there.
(A slightly different version appeared in Logberg-Heimskringla)
I had Kraft dinner for supper. Well, actually, it wasn’t Kraft dinner. It was Annie’s Rice Pasta & Cheddar.
I was diagnosed with Celiac disease three years ago. Three years without Kraft dinner. Not that I ever ate it that often but it was a great favorite when I was a kid. As an adult, I probably ate it once every couple of months but once I couldn’t have it, I longed for it. I dreamt about it. In the grocery store, I stood in the pasta section and stared at it.
Then I discovered Annie’s Rice Pasta & Cheddar at the local Co-op store. That was a surprise but an even bigger surprise was that it was reasonably priced. Most companies sock it to celiacs. You want gluten free food, you are going to pay for it. Four cookies for five dollars—or more. When I discovered the Pasta & Cheddar, I bought all three packages. Just having them in the cupboard helped stop my craving. It’s taken me three months to eat all three packages. I’ll have to stock up again.
Comfort foods come from childhood. They usually come from mom. My mother was a great cook and baker. When my mother and father got married, he said he was going to have a lemon pie every day. I know my mother didn’t make lemon pies every day but she made them often. Great lemon pies with flaky crusts, with deep, tart lemon filling, with egg whites whipped into high, twirly mounds and finished off in the over so there was just a light brown on the tips. When you cut down with your fork, you could feel the layers: the crumbling egg white, the jelly like lemon, the crispy crust breaking apart. Putting each piece in your mouth was erotic. The three textures, the three tastes, separate and together. It tasted so good that after that first bite, I used to shut my eyes and sigh.
Stew with dumplings on a cold winter day. Coming home from school, my boots crunching through the snow, I could smell the stew from the edge of the yard. I’ve tried to duplicate my mother’s stew but have never succeeded. She made it in a large blue enamel roasting pan and cooked it for half a day. Chuck roast for flavour, peeled potatoes, carrots, parsnips, onion, garlic, salt, pepper, bay leaf, maybe a pinch of nutmeg and, I suspect, some Demerara sugar under the roast. She would never say. Lots of gravy because after the table was set, she put in the dumplings, dumplings that fluffed up so they were light, cut easily at the touch of a fork, dumplings bathed in gravy, speared with a piece of meat. Imagine a meal like that followed by lemon pie.
My father made the pickerel fillets. Great golden mounds of pickerel fillets from fish he’d caught that morning. In season he fried the roe to go with them. Roe that was crispy and mild. Sometimes, if the pickerel were big enough, he’d take out the cheeks, dip them in batter and deep fry them. The fillets he dipped in a mixture of milk, egg and tomato ketchup, dredged them in flour, then dipped them again and dipped them in fine bread crumbs. No matter how bad my day had been by the end of a meal like this and the world had righted itself.
Comfort food. Food made with love, shared with love, containing memories of childhood, of family meals, of going to sleep with a full stomach and a smile.