Feb 24, 2006

Cooking with Nana: The 1950s

(This is another gesture towards a food memoir. I'm trying to figure out what I might say and what my voice will sound like.)

In my basement are six file boxes and three notebooks of my grandmother’s handwritten recipes. Yellowed, tattered, disorganized, repetitive. Yet I search for clues to what her life was, its secrets and revelations. Sometimes I find a favorite dish, like Gingerbread or Country Captain, and the recognition warms me. The rest must be extrapolated.

I’m up to the 1950s now. She and my grandfather (“Papa”) lived in Wayne, Pennsylvania, and he taught at Valley Forge Military Academy. Nana volunteered at the Neighborhood League Shop and socialized with the other faculty wives and Neighborhood Leaguers. She wore white gloves to the city, had a cleaning woman, and in general lived the genteel life of a Main Line lady. That is, a Main Line lady of the 1950s. Her moderate-size four-bedroom colonial, circa 1952, has in the late 1990s been renovated and added onto, enough so that the house is now three times bigger and completely unrecognizable. No doubt it has a huge kitchen that is rarely used for the kind of cooking my grandmother did: braided breads, baked beans from scratch, apple pan dowdy, meat loaf with beef she ground in her own grinder, and salads from Papa’s well-tended garden.

These recipes are contained in a black looseleaf notebook, in no apparent order. Two documents, stuffed inside the notebook with recipes on them, help me date this collection. One is a Christmas letter from the USMA (West Point) Class of 1925 to its individual members, dated 1953-1954. “From the Pentagon to Paree, Korea, Japan and Germany to all points north, south, east and west—wherever Uncle Sam’s best are stationed.” The other is a mimeographed page of recipes headed “Television Kitchen Recipes” by Florence P. Hanford. “Featured Every Wednesday in Color,” asserts the next line. The show could be seen at 2:00 PM on WRCV-TV, or Channel 3. On the side is a jaunty drawing of a cameraman focusing his huge camera on a plated ham, which has hands and legs and a cheerful face. Channel 3 started using those call letters in 1956, and the show’s time was 2:00 from 1958 to 1960. The first recipe on the Television Kitchen page is Sautéed Chicken with Potatoes. It calls for chicken, butter, flour, onion, garlic, salt, pepper, potatoes--fair enough--and then, distressingly, 1 ¼ cups of cranberry juice. In the early days of color TV, taste was easily sacrificed, I suppose.

Nana was also in her fifties, keeping pace with the century. I don’t know if her memory was starting to go, or it she was just taking precautions against recipe loss or destruction, but there are three identical recipes for Texas Hash in this book, two for Lemon Cake Pudding, two for Shrimp Creole and two for French Dressing. Certain ingredients dominate the main dishes, especially crabmeat, oysters, cheese, cream, and sausages. This was company food. The richness also dates the recipes, because Nana had a heart attack late in the decade and became one of the first Americans to follow a strict low-fat diet. I remember her making angel food cake for every single birthday. She disdained cheese, bacon, and rich desserts when I knew her, so it feels strange to read one brownie recipe’s exclamation, “Delicious!” Brownies with frosting. A recipe for five pounds of fudge deservedly ends the collection. Just reading it makes my teeth hurt. Nana must have been in a hurry when she was copying it, because most of the instructions are written in now-dead shorthand. The angel-food-cake Nana I knew would no doubt be pleased that I couldn’t read the code.

Some recipes do sound good, and I’ve flagged them for trying someday, like Pink Party Cake, Mocha Mystery Cake, the Texas Hash, and Chicken Cacciatore. Pink Party Cake includes crushed peppermint candy in the frosting, and Mocha Mystery Cake has a cup of coffee poured over it. Texas Hash must be important or it wouldn’t be written three times. And I remember eating Nana’s Chicken Cacciatore as a child.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that the daughter of strict teetotaling parents would take a cocktail or two. Nana’s father and mother, Graham and Grace, would no doubt be shocked to find that she harbored this recipe for Whiskey Sours:

2 cups whiskey
5 to 6 tablespoons sugar
Juice of 8 lemons
Maraschino cherries

Mix first three ingredients, add ice, and shake in cocktail shaker or mason jar. Keep refrigerated to prevent dilution. Put a cherry in each glass. Makes 12 to 14 drinks.

Do you even know 12 to 14 people who drink whiskey sours? Grace and Graham didn’t, and I certainly don’t. I like to think of Nana pouring these drinks for the officers and their wives into her lead crystal lowball glasses, sneaking a sip and an extra cherry in the kitchen. I see her making sure to introduce people and say just the right thing, looking elegant in a pinched-waist silk dress down to her mid calves. She smiles graciously and moves demurely, her auburn hair shining, pearls gleaming. No one knows the hours she spent painstakingly assembling canapés, grinding meat, picking vegetables, and baking in the hot kitchen. In this moment, she is the hostess, cool and fresh. And perfect.


Amishlaw said...

Sounds great to me. I like the mixture of biography and food. I could never do anything like this because my mother never used recipes. Her cooking was hit and miss. Sometimes the results were spectacularly (well, they were always spectacular)good and sometimes bad.

Sugarmama said...

It WAS a different era, wasn't it? I love to picture those glamorous cocktail parties when I'm busy planning one of my own.

The whisky sour recipe sounds great, but it also looks like the 12-14 drinks would've been TINY. I'm guessing a yield of that many 2-ounce drinks? We do everything bigger these days, though, don't we?

Anonymous said...

I am interested in your Television Kitchen recipies. How can I contact you via email so that we can discuss? Thanks. ajh