My Mother’s “Joy of Cooking”

This vintage Joy of Cooking was my mother’s main cookbook for all 18 years I lived at home. The author’s foreword speaks from another time, addressing the “kitchen-minded” woman of long ago.

Its recipes include things my mother often made: chicken and dumplings, ham baked with pineapple rings, macaroni and cheese, split pea soup, city chicken, spinach soufflé, scalloped corn, creamed chipped beef, banana bread, tapioca pudding, chocolate cake, and an always-perfect apple pie.

I’m grateful she avoided many other offerings on these pages. She cared about flavor and tried all sorts of recipes clipped from women’s magazines as well as hand copied from library issues of Gourmet magazine. The Joy of Cooking recipe for “Beef Chop Suey” called for ground meat to be cooked with celery, onions, and mushrooms in a quarter-cup of butter, then doused with a can of tomato soup and served with fried noodles. My mother instead drove to an Asian market in Cleveland to purchase ingredients not normally found in grocery stores back then — tofu, cellophane noodles, bok choy, snow peas. Even I, the fussy eater of the family, enjoyed her attempts at Chinese cooking. My mother also talked neighbors into getting regular deliveries of fresh eggs from an innovative farmer and visited rural farm stands to get fresh fruit in season — well ahead of the farm to table movement.

I grew up glad to come home to a house smelling like supper. The aroma was reassurance that we were loved and cared for, another kind of hug. My mother’s dishes were a way of serving her time and attention to all of us, even if we were incessantly reminded in our early years to get our elbows off the table, chew with our mouths closed, and eat everything on our plates. I’m sure my picky appetite didn’t make things easier for her. I abhorred the texture of creamed corn, detested having to drink the syrup that oozed around canned fruit (“That’s where all the vitamins are!”), couldn’t bear to eat anything containing sour cream or cream cheese, and was appalled when my peas touched my potatoes. I disliked meat, especially meat that wasn’t hidden in soup or casseroles, and never quite got over the idea of cutting up animal bodies as food. It took years before I stopped asking “what was it when it was alive.” I wanted to gulp my milk, eat a few bites, then get back to playing, riding my bike, or reading a library book.

My seat at the kitchen table was next to my father, who often took pity on me by serving me only tiny morsels of meat and even then, sometimes, pretending not to notice when I snuck it onto his plate anyway. I came up with all sorts of ways to get out of eating what I disliked. I’d crumple food in my napkin. I’d hide the nastiest bits under a potato skin. I’d say I needed to go to the bathroom, then stuff my mouth with something awful in order to spit it out in the toilet. Each gambit only worked once, although I kept trying. For a while my mother attempted get-tough methods. I spent several evenings sitting in front of a plate of food I was unable to finish, staying there until bedtime. This happened most often when she made hamburgers. These were rounded hunks of ground meat cooked in a frying pan; crusty outside, pinkish inside. They were served on a slice of white bread, as we didn’t fritter money away on anything so frivolous as buns. What she called “juices” soaked through the bread, making it a wet pulp, so the whole thing had to be cut and eaten with a fork. Condiments helped hide the brown mass but some bites I chewed with grumpy reluctance contained tiny bits of gristle and that’s all it took for me to feel nauseated. I was entirely willing to sit at the table while my siblings were excused to go play. I sat there thinking of myself as a greatly misunderstood character in one of my books, sometimes willing a dramatic tear to slide down my face. One time my mother, surely fueled by yet another Parents magazine article advising her to “show children you mean business,” got my plate out of the refrigerator and insisted I eat it for breakfast. I didn’t. I won that battle, as she was unwilling to let me go to school on an empty stomach. After that she gave up. Maybe she realized I read every copy of Parents magazine that came in the mail too.

Holding this book in my hands brings to mind a line from the poem “Food,” by Brenda Hillman — “imagine all this/translated by the cry of time moving through us.” These Joy of Cooking pages serve as distinct, sometimes full body travel through time. Just her handwriting on these splattered and bent pages brings me back.

She wrote revisions to some recipes.
Noted which weren’t worth repeating.
Kept lists of useful household information between the pages.

The cookbook also served as a repository for little pictures and notes from her three children. To safeguard the privacy of my older sister and younger brother, I’ll only include one (unsigned) image by each of them.

A cartoon drawn by my sister, from her preteen years.
A cheery non-complaint by my brother when he was in elementary school.

My mother saved a pile of drawings and notes by all of her kids, but I’ll share more of my own from different years as examples.

Note from an eight-year-old.

It’s strange to look back at these offerings, recognizing how much these little expressions of love must have meant to her. But that, of course, is exactly what her children intended when they drew or wrote them.

Note from a 14-year-old, home late from a babysitting gig.

She even, unbelievably, saved a test of mine from high school — graded with a huge zero. (Naturally, I corrected the teacher’s misuse of “your.”)

I’m glad to have this now-fragile copy of a book my mother held so often throughout the decades. She’s been gone for far too many years. I’m going to give these pages a closer look to pick out a few familiar recipes I’ll be making soon.

10 thoughts on “My Mother’s “Joy of Cooking”

  1. I have always found it comforting to have fresh, home made food at home. Even coming home after a day out with the smell from the slow cooker is nice. Not as nice as having the smell of freshly baked cookies wafting through the house, but still nice. Food does seem to provide both a common setting for getting together, even with those of a different mindset, and of settling that which bothers us the most, even during the toughest of times. This was both a wonderful read and for me, a very pleasant trip down my own memory lane. Thank you.

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  2. I so love this! I tried all your table tricks to avoid eating what I didn’t like. And in my senior year of high school biology two I was so disgusted with my teacher who often didn’t even show up to teach that I wrote a scathing critique and said I didn’t feel I needed to take his exam. And yes it was my first F ever. Hahaha

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  3. I too have my mother’s cookbook. As it’s in English, I feel confident that it wasn’t her first (she was Dutch), but it’s certainly the one I remember seeing all through my own childhood. We had good food; I particularly enjoyed the rich, savoury northern European dishes, the occasional Nasi Goreng or Rijstafel and the wonderfully lavish hand with spices in her baking. Her book is filled with grease splatters, notes on how to dress a pheasant, drawings of the cat, there’s one of my primary school reports and newspaper clippings of Elizabeth David recipes. She taught me how to squeeze every last ounce of nutrition out of a chicken, how to make stock from scratch, how to feed a family of 6 and stretch it when two more turned up unexpectedly. My cooking tastes like hers because it IS hers. She tried and failed, like me, to make pastry successfully; we both have warm hands that heat and toughen the dough. We both love(d) to make bread and beat the living daylights out of the dough. We both ‘cook the fridge’ – taking whatever we have and making something delicious from it, rather than following a recipe or needing to buy lots of things we don’t already have,
    Thank you for this post. It has brought back lots of great memories. I just wish there was still someone who could fill the house with good smells, who isn’t also me! She has been gone nearly 40 years.

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    • Thank you for this, Kate. I had to look up Nasi Goreng, Rijstafel, and a few Dutch main dishes to let me breathe in these imaginary aromas. I’m a “cook the fridge” sort and prefer to riff on an idea than use a recipe as well. I, too, miss having someone fill the house with the tantalizing smells but am glad to be the kitchen wench too. Cooking and baking are some of my favorite excuses to get away from the desk.

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  4. My mother, 1st child of Sicilian immigrants to be born in this country, never used a recipe in her life and never wrote anything down. She learned to cook by watching and helping her mother. She experimented with abandon. When asked how much [fill in the blank] to add to the ingredients, she would always say “It’s according to how I feel.” Everything was made “from scratch,” and I can’t remember a single thing she cooked that wasn’t delicious.

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  5. I think I have the same exact cookbook of my mothers, as well as her Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and several more. They are indeed little time capsules, and I cherish them. One of the things I love is her little notes here and there, doubling a recipe, or even crossing a recipe out! I rely on both her math and opinion!

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