Friday, May 7, 1999
I come from a long line of cooks who tell lies and keep secrets. Learning the craft and skill of cooking at one's mother's knee has limitsmother holds back a few gems to maintain her place at the pinnacle of the kitchen power structure. The kitchen was her kingdom. Its rule was the only power allowed her and her sisters. Grandma lied too, as did dad.
Pie was one of the four main food groups at table in my youth, along with casseroles and canned vegetables. I made lots of pie crusts, but never as well as my mother's. I never knew why until one day I watched from the hall. A big tablespoon of sugar went in for each crust. Confronted, my mother said that she had told me the trick years before. She lies.
My grandmother's fruit salad was a wonder. All inquiries received a roll of the eyes and the quick recipe: cut up fruit, a little sugar and into the fridge overnight. My older sister caught her with the cream sherry bottle, adding more than a couple of splashes. 24 hours of fermentation later and we kids thought we were tasting ambrosia.
Sometimes the little gems are lost. I can still hear my grandmother's moans every Christmas, reminiscing about her mother's cold pork pie, the centerpiece of her childhood Christmas dinner in England. Her mother kept her title of best cook a little too longthe 1918 influenza epidemic took her mother and the pork pie recipe away forever.
What is my father's excuse: competition with the women folk? His father taught him to make an outstanding chocolate sauce, which he eventually taught my brother. Such theater when he decided to make the sauce. Everyone was chased away from the kitchen for hours. The smell of the chocolate cooking would dominate the house. It was a power thing.
My family is not alone in its family larceny and kitchen power politics. I dropped by my friend Jane's house just as she removed a fine banana bread from the oven. Jane is a gentle Tidewater southerner; woman of letters, with a voice that is music. She came to New England via Smith College; a lady; a writer. She reverently showed me an aged note card with a recipe. "Listen to this," as she read the card, "this recipe came from my mother, her mother before her. Listen: 'Crush bananas with a silver fork.' Hear the music in those words. Your Robert Frost could do no better. 'Crush bananas with a silver fork. Add eggs, beaten light, and sugar.'" She was in love with the sound of the words rolling off of her southern tongue and the history behind the sound.
I don't think she ever truly forgave me. The next day over the phone I read aloud "Crush bananas with a silver fork. Add eggs, beaten light, and sugar." 1939 Fannie Farmer, page 76.
Apparently, Jane flamed, in a gentle southern kind of way, at her mother over long distance, and her mother, even more gentle, flamed right back. When Jane had asked for 'Grandmother's old recipe, the one that starts 'Crush bananas with a silver fork'" her mother, a little mystified, copied it out on some old card that was floating around the kitchen, and mailed it to her. And, no, Jane could not have the book until she (the mother) died. Jane hadn't asked for the book, did not even know about it, let alone covet it. But precious old cookbooks have knowledge, and knowledge is power. The power of being the best cook is jealously guarded when the kitchen is the only kingdom one is allowed.
As tricked from my brother
1/2 cup cocoa
2 cups sugar
1 cup water
1/8 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons vanilla
Mix, boil three minutes. Add vanilla when largely cooled.
What were the family men doing all these hours in the kitchen while the syrup cooled? The mystery lives on.
© 1999 The Carlisle Mosquito