(Don’t Forget To)

Judith Nakken

© Copyright 2005 by Judith Nakken


Here's part of my new project, a non-fiction thing that's not so much a recipe book (although there's a recipe for everything discussed) as personal stories about comfort foods.


        I stole my first cookbook.  It was in a barrel in the storage room next to the dank basement apartment we rented from Eda B. Merritt on Marietta Drive , and I was a desperate, sixteen-year old bride.

            “Well, old boy, can she cook?”  The marines stationed at the Naval Air Station on Coronado Island had only one question for their young supply sergeant, my new husband.  He had been motherless for years and didn’t have that home cooking comparison.  But his answer, always the same, wasn’t a joke.  He meant it.

            “Well, guys, she cooks.  But it ain’t like the mess hall.”

            I needed to cook better than the mess hall, and fast.

            The purloined sixth edition, completely revised, of Fannie Merritt Farmer’s Boston Cooking-School Cook Book was a 1937 printing, first published in 1896.  It was a sturdy, hardcover book, already yellowed with age.  The first page advertised Magic Covers that prevented dough from sticking to breadboards and rolling pins (I had neither,) and the company would send one postpaid from Newport , Maine for a dollar.  Dollars were hard to come by during the Korean War, but I coveted a Magic Cover.  Somehow, I knew that my dough was going to stick and I should be prepared.

            I skipped over the chapters dedicated to menu planning, equipment and methods.  I just wanted to know how to make the things my mother cooked – pork roasts and meat loaf, escalloped potatoes and homemade yeast rolls that pulled apart into three pieces and tantalized you with their odor when they were baking.

            And gravy.  My bridegroom wanted gravy.  Page 196 showed me how to do it.  Page 89 was a lifesaver, in those days before Bisquick, and baking powder biscuits were time consuming with only a mesh strainer for a flour sifter, but otherwise easy to create.  A fried hamburger patty, green peas from a can and biscuits and gravy, ice cream for dessert, was my first real meal.  It garnered raves of approval and sent me off and running about the business of cooking.   Dreams of writing the Great American Novel went on hold while acquiring pots, pans and potato ricers became an obsession, concocting perfect dishes my ultimate goal.  Adding the love was to come many years, many tears later.

            In the intervening half century plus, Mrs. Merritt’s cookbook has become tattered and fragile.  In the 90’s, my daughter scored me a 1959 Bantam paperback edition, at a garage sale for a dime.  I use it as reference to make the staples that now add the love in my kitchen; homemade mayonnaise, Cleveland and Bleu Cheese dressings, huckleberry jams and syrups, rhubarb-fig marmalade, bread pudding and cooked-in-water custard pie.

            The original book, held together with twine, occupies a place of honor in the cupboard in our family room.  I open it a couple of times a year, remember Mrs. Merritt and am sorry I don’t know whether her late husband was related to Fanny Merritt Farmer.  I ponder whether she ever knew of my theft, and wonder about an afterlife in which she knows I finally wanted to ‘fess up and make amends, but it was too late.

Before I put it away, I always read Fanny Farmer’s preface to her first edition of this book that has been a companion piece to my life.  It begins:  “But for life, the universe were nothing; and all that has life requires nourishment.”    And I rejoice in my confirmed, recent years’ perception that nourishment wears many disguises.  Whether it’s cordon bleu or a delivered pizza, an attaboy or a necessary scolding, I must not forget to add the love.

                                                                                     Chapter One

                                                                             Sour Cream Raisin Pie

            It was a family tradition, was the sour cream raisin pie, its recipe handed down for generations that my mother and her three sisters could never name.  Aunt Loie, second of Grandfather Pete Hansen’s four daughters, was the keeper of the recipe and, while it was available to my mother or any of the sisters, Orpah Lois was the only one who made the pies for holiday feasts.  It was prized far more than the pumpkin and mincemeat on the dessert table at Thanksgiving and its browned egg white peaks seemed to sneer at the pies with which it was forced to share space.

            Aunt Loie gave me a handwritten recipe card when I was married to the young marine, taped to a box of bed pillows she and Aunt Evelyn made and stuffed with the feathers of their own South Dakota geese and ducks.  I still have one of the pillows, and the card is laminated and occupies prime space in my recipe box.

            How I struggled with piecrust!  I can’t count the number of rented walls that wore grease stains from tattered dough thrown in frustration by the temperamental bride, then young mother.  If it was tough enough to go into the pie plate without tearing it was inedible, and it was umpteen years before I knew what tender, flaky piecrust was like when it baked.  It only festooned the walls of many kitchens.  So, I made a lot of glamorous from-scratch cakes in the early years of my search for culinary perfection.

            I think the secret was in a pie recipe I took from a sack of Gold Medal flour.  How simple!  Cut-Rite waxed paper has been a staple in my kitchen since then.  It is just wide enough to roll the tender crust for a 9” pie between two sheets, remove one, and place the crust in the pie plate before removing the second piece of paper.  Practice made perfect, and soon my now single-parented youngsters would ooh and ah:  “Oh, boy!  Sour cream raisin pie!”

            It doesn’t look like the rich pleasure it becomes in the mouth.  In fact, to many it resembles nothing so much as something the cat left behind.  Yet, people who avow their hatred of all things raisin have tasted gingerly and returned for unabashed seconds.  I typed many cards on my portable typewriter to have on hand and distribute whenever I took the pie to a gathering, for inevitably a half-dozen women would ask for the recipe.

            Many years later, it was Christmas potluck at my new job in Western Washington State .  The wives of some of the men on the crews would be attending, as well as the bosses and my all-female inside staff.  I baked two pies and typed additional cards, for there would be more than a dozen women there.  Two plastic card-holder forks from floral arrangements held the recipes, sure to be requested, in the center of the pies.

            I was working in the conference room with the outside auditor, rush work that we kept up until the staff nagged us to stack our papers so they could set up for the feast.  My pies already sat at the end of the huge table, their recipe banners waving.  The CPA accepted my invitation to stay and have a bite to eat, and we arranged to meet at 7:30AM on the day after Christmas.

            I didn’t get back to the conference room until the festivities were over, due to an emergency computer malfunction at the payroll desk where Christmas bonuses were not yet printed.  I sent the clerk to eat and fixed and printed in time to hand envelopes to employees as they left; to give and receive Merry Christmas goodbyes.  The building was empty when I went to get my pie plates, hoping there was a piece left to top off my husband’s dinner.

            The pies were untouched, not even sliced, their plastic flagpoles drooping and looking not so much clever as just plain silly at the end of a table littered with the remains of spaghetti, baked beans, an empty plate that once held brownies and a crumpled but empty bag of storebought cookies.  I was mortified, my chagrin only tempered by remembering that my number one son was stopping in later that evening, and now I could give him a pie.

            I was in the office at 7:15 on December 26th, had shoved the potluck remains to the end of the long table and was replacing our stacks of audit work when the young CPA arrived.  “Sorry for the mess,” I said.  “The staff must have been anxious to start Christmas and intend to clean up when they get in this morning.  Did you enjoy the potluck?”

            “Oh, yes, thanks,” he replied.  “But, did anyone ever eat any of that woman’s sour cream pie?”  His nose wrinkled in distaste.

            “No, I don’t think so,” was my quiet, measured response.

            “Well, I don’t wonder,” he went on.  “Imagine bringing something like sour cream pie to a potluck!”

            We went on with our work and the incident was over.  I needed neither to confirm or defend, for the love had already been added when 40-year-old Marcus spotted them on the kitchen counter the night before Christmas.   “Oh, boy,” he shouted as gleefully as he had when a bottomless teenager.  “Sour cream raisin pies!”

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