Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Finding My Grandmother in a Cookbook

This past weekend was one of those absolutely stunning New England fall weekends. Most of the oak and maple trees are at their most brilliant colour and the sky was sapphire blue with the temperature in the mid to upper 50's; perfect first sweater weather of the season.

Both MBH and I had a long list of errands to run in downtown Boston. He had just ordered a new suit and blazer that needed to be picked up from the tailor and wanted to look at new Pocket PCs. I had the shortribs for the Braised Beef Shortribs I talked about in the last post to pick up from Deluca's Market and most importantly, I had to run by the Brattle Bookshop.

I have a very soft spot in my cookbook collecting heart for mid-Twentieth Century cookbooks. You know, the ones from the late 40's until the mid 70's. I think this stems from long summer visits to my grandmother's house in Cadillac, MI when time I didn't spend in the lake was spent sitting on the sun porch reading. My grandmother wasn't much of a "from scratch" cook other than cookies and pies but give her one of the Pillsbury Bake-off Cookbooks from 1960-something and she would cook up a feast. I would always pack three or four books to read during my visits but inevitably I would devour the books I brought with me in the first week. After a few years, I had read most of the books in her house and the small library down the street that interested me. One rainy afternoon, having nothing to read and being a Sunday, no opportunity to go to the library, out of desperation I turned to my Grandmother's cookbooks. I was fascinated by the pictures of 1940s and 50s housewives in their crinolines and pearls mixing cakes with a hand beater and slicing carrots with their perfect manicured nails. The chapters on how to be a good hostess and how to please your family were like reading science fiction to me, a snapshot of life in a galaxy far, far away. When my grandmother died, my mother took her collection of Pillsbury Bake-off cookbooks (she had every one from the very first bake-off in 1949 until her death in 1982) and her original Betty Crocker but no one wanted her set of Woman's Day Encyclopedia of Cookery.

I didn't find out that no one in the family had the set until a couple years ago and in fact, had forgotten all about the set until during my recent vacation, when I stumbled upon Vols. 1-2 and 7-9 on one of the dollar a book carts in the bargin book courtyard of the Brattle Bookshop. Standing in the sunshine, flipping through someone else's stained copy of Volume 1 brought back powerful memories of sitting in the worn chairs on the sunporch at my grandmother's. I could hear the rain hitting the roof and smell the lake on all the damp swimsuits and towel hanging to dry. If I closed my eyes, I could almost hear my grandmother puttering around in the kitchen opening cans of this and boxes of that while making some Grandprize winner's recipe for dinner. It was then that I knew that I had to have the entire set of Woman's Day Encyclopedia of Cookery and I didn't care how long it took me to track down all twelve volumes. I bought those volumes of the set right there and then. Towards the end of my vacation, I went back to the Brattle and found that they had put Vols. 3 - 5 out on the three dollar a book carts. I snagged those as well; leaving only Vols. 6 and 9-12 to locate.

As luck would have it, two weekends ago while MBH and I were at the Brattle for something else on one of our "must have" out print book lists, I noticed on the five dollar a book cart Vols. 9-12. Ever frugal and knowing that the likelihood of anyone else desperately in search for this dated series was slim, I decided to play the odds and wait for them to be marked down to the three or one dollar carts. This weekend, I hit pay dirt. Not only did the Brattle still have Vols. 9-12 BUT they also had Volume 6 and they were all on the one dollar cart. I would have missed them had it not been for MBH's eagle eye. By 3pm on Saturday, I was happily home munching on some homemade bread and eagerly reading about "exotic" Swedish food in Volume 11; content knowing that someone in my family once again owned the entire series of Woman's Day Encyclopedia of Cookery.