Thursday, 17 January 2008

Memories of a cookbook

My mother frequently asks me if I want something or other that belongs to her. She's been doing this for more than a decade as she clears out her possessions in anticipation of her death, which will come sooner or later. In the latest phone call she offered me three things, a yearbook, a pin, or a cookbook. I chose the cookbook. It came in my birthday package.

This is no ordinary cookbook. This is the "Cross Creek Cookery" cookbook, written by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, who also wrote "The Yearling." Have any of you ever seen that classic with Gregory Peck (I wanted to marry that man when I was about 7 or 8 after seeing The Yearling and To Kill A Mockingbird) and Jane Wyman (I always hated those cheekbones, which Hilary Clinton seems to have inherited)?

"Cross Creek Cookery" used to live on the bookshelf above my parents' bed, which says a lot about my mother's cooking. But perhaps that's because it's not so much a cookbook as a book about a life of cooking. Much like MFK Fisher's "The Art of Eating," which I also own. "Cross Creek Cookery" was published in 1942, and very much reflects the Florida of that time. Still very swampy and wild, as were the recipes.

My mother or someone circled several of them: Florida Soft Shell Turtle (Cooter) Soup; Poke Weed, Cross Creek; Swamp Cabbage (Hearts of Palm); Orange Lake Frog Legs; Turtles and Gophers; Coot Liver and Gizzard Pilau. Now I can tell you that my mother never once cooked Cooter, Gopher, Frogs Legs, Swamp Cabbage or Poke Weed. So she must have been amused by the exotic sound of these recipes. There are also recipes for more mundane dishes: Chili Con Carne, Spaghetti and Meatballs, Ginger Snaps.

But it's the tales behind the recipes that are most riveting. How she would shoot ducks every year when in season and the embarrassment of serving duck breast to one professor (perhaps at the University of Florida which was close to her house) who thought very highly of himself. When he had to spit out the lead shot from the duck breast, she could hardly contain herself. How she once hired a manservant named Godfrey from Ocala who fancied himself an intellectual (I think Ocala intellectual is an oxymoron). Godfrey was quite happy to serve Roast Wild Duck but not collard greens and corn bread. He quit when cows broke into Rawling's land and started to eat her oranges.

MFK Fisher's "The Art of Eating" also is full of anecdotes and reminiscences. The two also write about a different sort of cooking, when everything was freshly laid or shot or caught or picked. When supermarkets didn't exist and you either grew and raised your own or went to markets to buy fresh ingredients. No ready meals. No fast food. The preparation and cooking of the meals are as important as the eating. I feel an empathy with these women, not that I come from a culinary background like theirs. But I can appreciate good food and the preparation that goes into it. And I do like to eat.

All I can add is that Nigella Lawson can't write -- or cook -- a patch on these women.

15 comments:

Kaycie said...

I love cookbooks. My two latest obsessions are Marcella Hazan's "Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking" and a slow cooker cookbook by a chef, Rick Rodgers, who makes things that come out of your crockpot incredibly delicious.

Queeny said...

I'm not much of a cook, but those stories do intrigue me. They call to mind the days when my grandfather would kill a deer then skin it and gut it right in the back yard. The rest of the family would eat venison in various meals for a few months, but watching the process turned my stomach and turned me off to deer meat 4evah.

Exmoorjane said...

Loved The Yearling (cried buckets) and love this kind of old cookbook. I have an old book of my grandmother's - with handwritten recipes and ones clipped out of newspapers, all yellow and curled....I keep meaning to try the cakes as she was a darn good baker...
Bah humbug to celebrity chefs - this is the kind of cooking we like....
sorry to queeny, but have to say I LOVE venison (though we only ever used to be given the odd haunch - not an entire carcass). jx

ChrisB said...

I have nearly a hundred cookery books some of them belonging to my grand mother from the 30's. I still use some of the recipes regularly. I know I should get rid of some but my daughter's wouldn't want them as they also have lots of their own!

wakeupandsmellthecoffee said...

kaycie: I have a book by Marcella Hazan as well. It was given to me about 25 years ago and is falling apart but has some wonderful recipes. I keep meaning to get a crockpot.

queeny: If I had to watch the process, I probably wouldn't eat venison either.

exmoorjane: I also have recipes of my grandmother's for the oddest things, like vinegar cake. I should try them sometime. I love venison too.

chrisb: I'm on my way to your number. I should get rid of some because I never use them.

-Ann said...

I love cookbooks too, especially old cookbooks. They make me feel like an archeologist or an anthropologist or something. My mother-in-law has this ancient copy of a cookbook, I think maybe "The Joy of Cooking". It's the sort of thing your mother would have given you when you got married.

The book is meant to teach you everything you need to know about preparing food, even when that food comes to you in its most non-processed form. There's a section on how to skin an animal (I think a possum) - and it has a picture of this woman in a dress, with dainty heels, and an apron. Skinning a possum.

Dumdad said...

My children would soon polish off the Orange Lake Frog Legs!

wakeupandsmellthecoffee said...

-ann: I have a copy of The Joy of Cooking and learned how to cook from it. As my ex would tell you, most of my recipes used to come off the back of a can of soup.

dumdad: I bet they would.

J said...

ooh - sounds like that book is a forerunner/potential companion to a book I just found in my bookcase - this one. Possum and squirrel recipes in there, too. And okra, collard greens, and so on.

As much as foodies would look down on recipes from these books, most of these recipes are real and totally no fail and extremely tasty (if you ignore calories and cholesterol and salt content) in a very comforting way. Not that I've tried gator tail stew, because I haven't, but the Five-Cup salad recipe is a secret guilty pleasure. :-)

laurie said...

oh, i remember reading the yearling when i was in seventh grade, and learning about foreshadowing and metaphor.

that would be a wonderful cookbook to have.

my mother gave each of her daughters a copy of "the joy of cooking" when we moved out of the house. mine is white bound, from the 1970s, but i loved hers--red cover, and absolutely falling to pieces. she used it for everything.

and so do i.

Flowerpot said...

I'm with you on that wakeup. I much prefer the stories behind the recipes than the food! But I gave my dad a wonderful book years ago called Father In the Kitchen. Practical and very good blokey stuff. My dad loved it and when he died mum gave it to me.

Crystal Jigsaw said...

Times have certainly changed. There are still ladies around here of the older generation who still wear pinnies all day and do nowt but cook. We have several cookbooks which were handwritten many moons ago but I haven't got a published one!

Crystal xx

Teresa said...

I got an old recipe box when helping an elderly neighbor clean out a 'mother in law' house. It hadn't been touched in years; it felt a little like reading someone's kitchen journal from the 30s and 40s.
Queeny, have you ever had venison sausage? It's delish!

Beckie said...

Came by looking for FM, but thought I would comment - I love cookbooks like you have described.

Also, your profile makes me smile. I, too, in gorgeous and in my twenties - on the inside anyway!

wakeupandsmellthecoffee said...

j.: The link didn't work unfortunately. My book has possum and squirrel recipes too, good ole Florida cooking.

laurie: I wonder how many of us learned to cook from The Joy of Cooking?

flowerpot: What sort of recipes did Father in the Kitchen have?

CJ: The handwritten recipes are usually the best ones.

Hi teresa: Yes, venison sausage is delish.

Hey Beckie: The older I get the more I feel like a 20-year-old or feel like I should feel like a 20-year-old. Or maybe I should just feel a 20-year-old.