“What price would you put on this?” one of the woman inquired holding up a fancy jello mold. We were sitting around the table in our church hall pricing donations for the big parking lot sale. “Nobody uses these anymore,” she stated emphatically.
It got me thinking about the role of gelatin salads in my life and wondering when this type of salad/dessert became popular and when it fell out of favor.
From Medieval times until the mid-19th century jellied dishes were strictly eaten by the elite – primarily because they were too time intensive for the average cook. However, it wasn’t until the 20th century and the rise of the middle class, that this dish became more common. When the Depression hit, jellied salads were a way of stretching ingredients affordably. During WWII when sugar and other ingredients were rationed, cooks could use fruit juice and exhibit entertaining pizzazz, despite shortages.
Knox gelatin was a staple in my home while I was growing up, and as a young married woman in the mid-1960s I made many a jello salad. My daughter still requests a cranberry salad made with raspberry jello for Thanksgiving – although I never relent. As I look back over my food choices and preparation methods, there are influences that lingered from my mother and grandmother’s experiences during the Depression and WWII – and even earlier.
My grandmother Elizabeth Stage was born in a coal mining community in Durham County, England. Her family moved a number of times to other mining communities until her father left the mines when she was a teenager. Women learned to cook by helping their mothers prepare food for their large families (my grandmother had 3 brothers and 4 sisters). My grandmother was an excellent cook – and never used a recipe. She made excellent vegetable soup with a beef stock. While each time it was slightly different – based on what she had on hand, it was always delicious because she had a knack for knowing how to season it. She was also an excellent baker – her rolls and pies were the best!
Whether it was because it was easier ‘to do it oneself,’ or whether she didn’t want her daughter to have to spend her growing up years in the kitchen like she did, she never taught my mother how to cook. Recipe books were essential to mom as she learned to cook on her own as a newlywed. She avidly collected recipes during her entire life – a trait I inherited.
While I was too young to remember the impact, my mother learned to adapt to war-time shortages.
Because rubber was not available, when our refrigerator gasket split, it was not able to be replaced and the refrigerator became useless. I have vivid memories of riding with my mother to purchase a block of ice each week, which she put into the laundry sink to keep perishable items cold.
Each member of the family had a ration card that determined the amount of rationed items (sugar, butter, meat, canned goods) that could be purchased. I have a copy of mine.
When I was almost five I was plagued with recurring tonsillitis. At the recommendation of one of my Dad’s work colleagues, I was taken to a doctor who used nutritional strategies to treat his patients. In fact, this physician recommended that our entire family adhere to the same diet which consisted of very little meat, very limited sweets, no ice cream – and other restrictions. My parents were so thrilled that I was no longer continually sick, they were zealots about this manner of eating which permeated my childhood and teenage years. While I am glad I grew up healthy, it made me sad to read an essay I wrote about a classmate describing her as “liking to eat meat and ice cream.”
My mother was an avid muffin-maker and involved me in making muffins by the time I was 8. Muffins were always made in a yellow fiesta-ware bowl, which now belongs to me. I wouldn’t dream of making muffins in anything else!
She prized herself on being able to substitute ingredients she did not have. Periodically, after everyone was served and sitting around the table, my mom would hesitate as we started to eat and then ask expectantly, “How do you like it?”
“What did you do different?” we would always ask before taking another bite. She would have replaced an ingredient with something she had on hand. While we used to make fun of this when we were younger and laugh about her inability to discern what could be swapped for the correct ingredient. Behind her back we used to say that she had no sense of taste. While it is true that she did not adequately season, I am more forgiving of her propensity to substitute. I would image that it stemmed from learning to cook at the end of the depression and during WWII when substitution was normal. Learning to ‘make due’ with what you had would become an important lesson I carried into adulthood.
When I became a Brownie, our troop took a cooking class sponsored by the Gas Company. While it has been many, many years since I made Bags of Gold (cheese dumplings that simmered in tomato soup), it is one of the recipes from that cooking class that survived over the years. By time I was a young mother, Bags of Gold were replaced by the much easier tomato soup with grilled cheese sandwiches, which are still a comfort food on a cold winter day.
At Arrowview Junior High, all girls were enrolled in a home economics cooking class (while the boys took wood shop) where I enjoyed learning to make all kinds of new foods and felt triumphant when our homework was to replicate recipes at home, especially when they included foods that “were not on the diet”. I remember my mom wanting to get me excused from preparing items we didn’t eat at home, but I refused.
I took Home Ec at San Bernardino High School and for a time thought I wanted to be a home economist, until I discovered that I would be bored in most of the jobs. During my teenage years I helped more and more with meal preparation, as well as helping to can peaches, apricots and applesauce during the summer months. Baking and decorating Christmas cookies was an annual tradition. During this period of time, I began collecting recipes and started my first recipe box.
When I went to the University of Redlands and lived in the dormitory, I was like a kid in a candy store being able to eat whatever I wanted – and had ice cream for dessert every day! During the second semester of my freshman year I got a job in the cafeteria helping to make salads in bulk.
I was fortunate to be able to spend my junior year at Chung Chi College in Hong Kong and learned the basics of Chinese cooking from my roommates. After returning home, I expanded my repertoire of Cantonese recipes and frequently treated my family to a Chinese meal. After learning to stir-fry vegetables, e.g. broccoli, until it was just tender, that I could enjoy vegetables I had previously shunned because they were always prepared too well done. My go-to Chinese cookbook
was one I purchased in Hong Kong and is in both English and Chinese characters.
Alas, I developed an allergy to soy in my late 50’s which has limited my enjoyment of Chinese food.
Later when I served as Executive Director of The Arc-King County, I donated a Chinese banquet for six to our fundraising auction each year and discovered how difficult it was to prepare the ingredients ahead, transport them, and then do all of the last-minute cooking in someone else’s kitchen!
After I married, I looked forward to preparing meals each evening, even when I was a harried working mother. I assiduously prepared weekly menus, often trying new recipes.
In 1974 our family moved to Washington. The Puget Sound area was not very cosmopolitan at that time and I complained to my sister that the only tortillas I could find were cocktail-sized ones in a can. A short time later I received a box from my sister and brother-in-law that contained tortillas, salsa, and packages of seasonings. One of the packages of tortillas was blue. I had never seen blue corn tortillas before and assumed they had molded, so threw them away – much to the horror of my sister when I told her.
Our home at the south end of Mercer Island backed up to the woods. I cleared land behind the house and put in a garden. I referred to this period of time as my ‘back to nature’ era. In addition to the garden, I picked apples from an abandoned orchard and wild blackberries that grew everywhere. Within a few years we ran into financial difficulties and I had very little money to spend on groceries. I dug out my mom’s war-time recipes and became creative with hot dogs. My stir fry skills enabled me to stretch meat and vegetables.
“Were you aware that things were difficult?” I hesitantly asked my oldest son BJ recently.
“No, all I remember is that you wouldn’t buy sugar-coated cereals,” he laughed.
Men really didn’t cook during that period of time and it never occurred to me that it would be important to teach my son how to fix meals until I came home late one day. My husband was busy working on his car and BJ was hungry. After that I started teaching him how to prepare simple foods.
The world of seafood opened up to me after our move to the Seattle area. We never ate fish of any kind when I was growing up, not even fish sticks or tuna sandwiches. Being introduced to fresh salmon, Dungeness crab, and oysters was a real treat. The woman who was my administrative assistant had a cabin on Hood Canal and invited the staff of The Arc to spend the weekend. I learned to set a crab pot and went home with a live crab in a pail of water. It was quite an experience to toss it in a cauldron of boiling water when I got home.
The small coffee roaster called Starbucks had opened in the Pikes Place Market area a few years before our move. At this point, it is hard to image that espresso drinks were not added until 1984 – and Seattle’s coffee culture was launched. I treated myself to a latte once a week on my way to work.
When I remarried in 1979, my cooking was celebrated and my husband feted me with fancy appliances on gift-giving occasions. I made pizza in a pizza-maker and experimented with a variety of homemade pastas with the attachment on my Cuisinart. I spent rainy weekends baking and making meals for the busy work week ahead. My recipe collection continued to grow and my mother-in-law, also a cooking enthusiast, gifted me with a large recipe box – which I still use today.
It was about 1980 when I visited my sister and brother-in-law in Albuquerque and they had a microwave. “It is the ultimate in laziness to boil water in a microwave,” I quipped to them. However, before long, we too acquired a microwave – and were among the 25% of American households that owned one. It didn’t get much use until a winter storm resulted in a broken pipe that poured water from the 2nd floor bathroom into the kitchen – right through the stove. During the time the stove was out of commission, I had to do all my cooking on my electric appliances and became quite adept at using the microwave.
Jay and Breanne learned to use the microwave when they were quite young and were able to prepare after-school snacks for themselves as they got older.
During this period I also learned to entertain. I don’t remember my parents having people over for dinner and this was not embraced during my first marriage.
However, the period of milk and honey would not last forever. Once again, money was tight and I drew upon my earlier honed skills to feed my family. We had to sell our house and moved to an apartment in Kirkland, WA before renting a smaller home. We met a family that would be come close friends. Thanks to Cathy and Lee Wangerin, I learned the joys of informal gatherings around food.
I am not sure whether it was childhood eating habits or my concern for the environment that drove my desire to eat fresh, pesticide-free food. During the years that we lived in Kirkland, WA I joined a local co-op and enjoyed buying foods in bulk.
By the early 1990’s my second marriage was failing and I longed for the closeness of family. While I had enjoyed my visits to Albuquerque, it seemed so prosaic. However, when Chris picked me up at the airport in November 1993, she proclaimed she had a surprise for me. The first stop was the mall where she showed me that Albuquerque now had an espresso cart. I knew I could think about moving and not worry about having to live in a ‘coffee-desert’.
Just as I adopted seafood when I moved to Washington, I eagerly learned to love green chile and appreciate that New Mexican cuisine was unique from the popularized Tex-Mex type of food.
After having both of my knees replaced in 2002, I found that when I stood long period of time in the kitchen that my legs ached and I looked for more efficient ways to prepare meals – and gave myself permission to purchase more ready-made items rather than feeling that I had to make everything from scratch, even when entertaining. I would laugh and say that I had ‘great shopping skills.’ I gained some skills that has enabled me to age more gracefully and not feel that I need to cook the way I used to.
In 2007 I subscribed to fresh produce from a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) local farm and picked up a box every two weeks. While I have always been fairly adventurous about trying new foods, this experience stretched my repertoire of fresh vegetables. I discovered a myriad of ways to fix swiss chard and learned to love kale. My brother-in-law loves to tease me about kale and is not sure that he wants me to bring salad to family gatherings in case I sneak in some baby kale.
Travel has enabled me to sample unique foods from different parts of the world – I always want to try the local specialty: eel at a banquet in Hong Kong, reindeer sausage from a street vendor in Alaska, grilled alligator appetizers in New Orleans, and ceviche and cuy (guinea pig) in Peru. I’m sure there are more food adventures to come.
I have only been able to part with a few of my cookbooks, even though I don’t actively use most of them anymore.
While only a few will actually be tried, even to this day I cannot resist tearing out recipes from the monthly newspaper food supplement.
When I look back over my life journey with food, it is clear that for me cooking is more than the drudgery of putting food on the table – it has been an evolving adventure and a form of creative expression.