Out of the kitchen and back again

In 1992, the year I graduated from college, Hillary Clinton was famously quoted saying, “I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was to fulfill my profession which I entered before my husband was in public life.”

I entered the working world imbued with the idea that cooking was an inconsequential activity, to be undertaken as minimally as possible.

This position, however, eroded slowly as a result of various life experiences but none so powerfully as becoming a mother. This is not to say I became the stay-at-home cookie baker that Hillary undiplomatically derided. But I did eventually evolve into the undisputed chef-in-chief of our household.

Before children, my husband and I used to cook together. I enjoyed the time together to unwind after work (for most of our acquaintance, we’ve shared both vocation and employers), and it comported with my ideal of shared domestic labor.

Our firstborn threw that arrangement out the window. Dinner preparation necessarily became a one parent operation. And within a year or two of his birth, it became my operation. I’m totally fine with that for four reasons:

1) Strictly equal division of labor is impossible and counterproductive. In September, a Norwegian study was widely reported for its finding that couples who share household duties run a higher risk of divorce. The researchers noted that it was not cause-and-effect, rather the correlation between shared labor and “modern” lifestyle. Women who are accomplished in their own right are not dependent on their husbands and can leave when they feel like it. So, while I may not need my husband to put food on the table, I do like having him around and even more so if he takes out the trash, a chore I despise. My firm belief is that “modern” couples are much happier if labor is divided along the lines of interest, proclivity and tolerance. Which brings me to ...

2) I find cooking creative. As I previously mentioned, I enjoyed my husband’s company in the kitchen, but when it comes to cooking, making a meal together is kind of like trying to paint a picture together. Every color and stroke must be negotiated. Like a Venn diagram, many flourishes fell outside the bounds of our overlapping preferences and were deferentially eliminated. The circumstance of being left to fly solo freed me to follow my fancy. Soon, I found ingredients singing to me like strains of music trying assemble themselves into a song. I daydreamed about meal planning the way a dancer mentally choreographs her routine. I ventured into cuisines and methods of cooking that made food preparation feel more like culinary anthropology than sustenance assembly.

3) Good food is expensive, and when it comes to food, I’m a total snob. I can’t bear to waste a single calorie on anything that doesn’t in some small way delight and surprise my palette. To feed my family that caliber of food outside the home would require a well-padded trust fund, of which I am sadly not the beneficiary.

4) The kitchen is my sanctuary. I’ll admit, cooking gives me a excuse to steal a little peace and quiet during which I can tune into the day’s news and learn about current events that make it possible for me to have reasonably informed conversations with fellow adults.

So, coming to this place where I have fully embraced my inner cook, I was duly elated when my mother-in-law recently bequeathed me with a family heirloom: a cookbook, published in the 30s, that belonged to her mother and grandmother before that. It’s kind of an almanac for the kitchen, providing a trove of tasty recipes for timeless staples.

The recipes are surprisingly simple and ergonomic, geared to provide maximum flavor with minimum effort. I also was surprised by its international flair, including instructions for everything from tortillas to cafe au lait. But most of all, I love the connection it offers to generations of mothers past.

So far I have tried two recipes, ripe tomato jam and gingerbread waffles. The first was divine (see recipe below). The gingerbread waffles tasted great but were dense, which I think is an altitude problem. I’ll include it, too, so you bakers out there can offer adjustments.

And tune in again for more adventures in retro cooking.

Ripe Tomato Jam

- 4 pounds ripe tomatoes

- 4 cups sugar (I used a little less)

- 1 teaspoon cloves

- 1/2 tablespoon broken stick cinnamon (I used ground)

- 2 cups vinegar

- 1/2 teaspoon whole Allspice

Scald (I took this to mean blanche), peel and quarter tomatoes. Place in pot with sugar, vinegar, cloves, allspice and cinnamon. Spices may be tied in a loose muslin bag. Simmer, stirring occasionally, until thick (this took several hours on low heat). (For long-term storage, freeze or can).

Gingerbread waffles

- 1 cup molasses

- 1/3 cup butter

- 1-1/2 teaspoons baking soda

- 1 egg, well beaten

- 2 cups cake flour

- 2 teaspoons ginger

- 1/2 teaspoon salt

- 1/2 cup sour milk (I used regular and had to nearly double to get the right batter thickness)

Put butter and molasses in saucepan and heat to the boiling point. Remove from fire and beat in baking soda. Add milk and egg. Add dry ingredients which have been sifted together. Mix. Bake in waffle iron. “These are delicious served hot with whipped cream and sprinkling of nutmeg,” the cookbook says. Makes 6 waffles.

I love the annotations in the margins. (Pay no attention to my powder-blue formica countertops that probably date to the same era as the cookbook). Enlarge photo

I love the annotations in the margins. (Pay no attention to my powder-blue formica countertops that probably date to the same era as the cookbook).

Super yummy on a cracker with goat cheese. Enlarge photo

Super yummy on a cracker with goat cheese.

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