A Book of Spells and Magical Enchantments

Sara Etgen-Baker

© Copyright 2020 by Sara Etgen-Baker

Photo of title page of cookbook.
 This is the story of how I came to own a special children’s cookbook. The story is also a bit nostalgic toward the end as I reflect upon what the cookbook and the memories affiliated with it mean to me.

Mother’s rectangular-shaped kitchen was tiny—no more than 7 feet long and 5 feet wide—which was to be expected since the house itself was small, less than 1,000 square feet. And like most houses built in the early 1950’s, the kitchen was designed primarily for functionality, equipped with only the basics—a moderate-sized refrigerator, a full-size gas range with stove, yet little countertop and storage space. In fact, storage was so sparse that Mother kept her pots and pans in the oven overnight and removed them the next morning when she prepared breakfast.

I learned to cook standing alongside her but often complained about her cramped, cracker box kitchen. “I hate cooking in here! There’s no room for anything! It’s ALWAYS hot in here, and I can’t breathe!” I’d open the kitchen window and fan myself rather dramatically. “You know, clean up would be so much easier if you just had a dishwasher and disposal.”

Listen here, Missy!” Mother turned to me with a scowled expression on her face. “When I was a young girl during the Depression, I helped my mother cook on a wood stove that was so old it had holes in it.” Then Mother stopped what she was doing and grabbed her wet dish towel. “Look around. My kitchen has a stove, a refrigerator, pots, pans, and cooking utensils; it’s enough. Everything else is optional.” Then she whipped her dish towel between her thumb and forefingers and snapped it on my buttocks. “Don’t be so fussy! Be grateful for what you have. Now finish washing and drying those dishes.”

So, I silently sulked and continued hand-washing and drying the dishes while my mother, aunt, and grandmother huddled around Mother’s kitchen table. They dumped all their S&H Green Stamps onto the table; sorted them by denomination; licked them; and stuck them onto the grid pages of the booklets that the supermarket gave away.

Like most women in the late 50s and early 60s, Mother didn’t work outside the home and had no income of her own. So, collecting and redeeming Green Stamps gave her a means of obtaining items she so desperately needed. As a matter of fact, Mother saved her stamps for two years before having enough to redeem for an electric waffle maker and mixer.

And on the day Mother cashed in her stamps, I went with her to the Redemption Center. “Here,” she handed me a blank order form, “I forgot my glasses and need you to fill this in for me.” While we waited for the stockroom clerk to retrieve her purchase, I browsed through the store.

Then I saw it—The Betty Crocker Cookbook for Boys and Girls—aptly described as a great cookbook for boys and girls, introducing them to basic cooking techniques and easy recipes. I opened the book; slid my fingers across its pages; and glanced through the recipes, drawings, and photographs and knew that I simply must have that cookbook. Although the cookbook cost only half a book of Green Stamps, asking Mother to out-and-out give me her prized Green Stamps was just unthinkable. So, I formulated a foolproof plan.

Mama,” I guided her toward the cookbook display, “have you seen this cookbook?” I opened the book’s pages. “It’s just perfect for me, and…..”

Hmm…” Mother skimmed through the pages. “I don’t know. Half a book of stamps is…”

an awful lot. I know, but…” I interrupted her hoping to stop her objection dead in its tracks. “…I’ll do extra chores to earn enough stamps to buy it. Please, Mama, pleeeese!”

Well, uh, I s’ppose so. But you’re responsible for your own stamps and putting them in the booklets.” She returned the cookbook to the display. “But once school starts, you won’t be able to do as many extra chores. School comes first, you hear me!”

Yes, Mama, I do!” I skipped out the door and raced to the car.
I spent the entire summer doing extra chores—ironing Father’s shirts, folding clothes, vacuuming, and dusting. At some point, even the neighbor ladies helped. They gave me Green Stamps for polishing their shoes; ironing their clothes; washing their dishes; dusting their houses; and running errands to the nearby supermarket. I was so ecstatic that I even stopped complaining about Mother’s cracker box kitchen! But by summer’s end, I was two pages shy of having the half book of Green Stamps that I needed.

When school started, I did as I promised and dedicated myself to my school work. The fall months passed; then winter’s chilly winds arrived, and by Christmastime I still didn’t have enough stamps to buy my cookbook. Then one frosty December evening while sitting in Mother’s kitchen and sipping on his coffee, Father asked, “Sweetie Pie, how many more stamps do you need for your cookbook?”

Just two more pages, Daddy. Why? Do you have an errand or chore for me?”

Yes, I do.” He placed his cup on the table. “Tell you what—grab your coat and stamps and hop in my pickup.”

I threw on my coat; followed him to his pickup; hoisted myself onto the seat; and noticed an envelope with my name on it.

What’s this, Daddy?”

You’ll see.” He flashed me a smile. “Go ahead, open it.”

When I did, loose Green Stamps poured out onto the seat next to me. “Are ALL these for me?”

Yes, Sweetie Pie!” His eyes danced with sheer delight.

But how, Daddy?” I asked, blinking back tears of joy.

A few months ago, my gas station started giving Green Stamps; so every time I bought gas, I put the stamps aside and saved them for you as part of your Christmas present. Merry Christmas!”

I can’t believe it, Daddy.” I exclaimed, squealing and hugging him.

Now let’s go get that cookbook!”

While he drove to the Redemption Center, I hurriedly licked the loose Green Stamps, affixing them to the empty grid pages of my booklet. Within just a few minutes of our arrival, I cashed in my stamps but then waited for what seemed like an eternity before the clerk retrieved my cookbook and placed it in my eager hands.  

May I have a look at your cookbook?” Father asked, gently nudging it from my tightly gripped hands. He then turned to the inside cover and inscribed these words: “May this, your first cookbook, help you to learn to love cooking.” Daddy, Christmas 1961.

Pick a recipe, Daddy, and I’ll make it for you,” I said when we got home.

He pored over its pages, settling on the cake recipe on page 14. “How ‘bout this Eskimo Igloo Cake?”

Splendid choice!”

 So that Christmas and many Christmases thereafter, I made the Eskimo Igloo Cake just for Father—our very own father-daughter tradition. But a lifetime of Christmases have come and gone; and although I continued the Christmas tradition of making the Eskimo Igloo Cake with my own family, I often found myself missing Father and baking him his special cake. I also missed Mother and sitting at her kitchen table, licking green stamps, and cooking alongside her in her cracker box kitchen.
Photo of recipe.

I know it sounds trite, but I miss those simpler times, too. But I’ve grown up and aged; and life and experience have revoked my license to return to those simpler times. Yet when I open the cookbook, time—as shapeless as the rain—dissolves into itself. The cookbook’s well-worn pages take me to that place where food memories mix with love and loss. Some of the pages ripple with the aftermath of some long-ago spills while bits of dried sauce cling to some other pages. But every dog-eared page, every splotch, and every smudge hold a special meaning. I’m temporarily back in Mother’s kitchen where Father, still in his work clothes, pulls up a chair at the kitchen table; pours himself a cup of coffee; and slowly savors the piece of Eskimo Igloo Cake I’ve served him.

I cherish my old cookbook and welcome being chaperoned back to such heartwarming, beautiful moments. The cookbook, however, is more than just a little girl’s vintage cookbook; it’s my own personal grimoire—my book of spells, magical enchantments, and a time machine all rolled into one. And this old sorceress feels so much better knowing her grimoire sits atop her pantry shelf where she can open its weary, timeworn pages any time she chooses; conjure up her favorite concoctions; and summon up those simpler, bygone times relishing them to her heart’s content.

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