I recently took a writing workshop which was called Greasy Pages Writing. The focus was writing or rather ‘storytelling’ about those beloved recipes or books that were either handed down or just well used. I recalled our 1950’s Betty Crocker picture cookbook with it’s funny drawings and captions that had a mid-century almost nursery rhyme look. The ‘how to’ pictures were mostly black and white step-by-step photographs of how to make pie dough or a cake with the occasional full color page of strategically laid out buffets of desserts or luscious fatty roasts. Oh how glorious those trays of cookies, cakes, and donuts looked. I don’t know exactly how we got the book, I only remember seeing it in the mid-late 60’s but by then it had already been smeared with butter and Crisco and caked with flour on the most used pages–the cookie recipes.
It was from this book that I taught myself to bake my first pie. I was 11 or 12 years old. I came across a wild patch of blackberries when a Frisbee went awry. Out of the swimming pool soaking wet in my bathing suit, I jumped up on the retaining wall to get it only to find it landed in a patch of wild blackberries. I gingerly tip-toed around picking them out of the brambles and placed them into the Frisbee and declared, “I’m going to make a pie”. Still in my bathing suit, in the summer heat I turned on the oven and gathered all the ingredients. I followed the picture directions to mix and roll the dough. It said to use a scissor to cut off the overhanging dough–so I grabbed my mothers big black handled sewing scissors and cut away. To make vent holes in the top it said to use a small spoon which made small curved vents that looked like smiles. I baked it and we had it for dessert that night. I don’t remember if there were any accolades, I think my father exclaimed “you turned the oven on in this heat!”. I’d read the book like a novel, inhaling every word, trying to grasp the terms and techniques involved. I loved this book–some pages I read over and over. My next attempt was a chocolate cake, complete with chocolate frosting. It called for cocoa powder which we had. I didn’t really know how to check for doneness, somewhere in the book it said to stick a piece of straw in the center and if it comes out clean, it’s done. Straw, we didn’t have any hay so my aunt said use a piece of straw from the broom. I used that technique for years. Today, I think back on how dirty that broom probably was and wouldn’t dream of doing that now. I’d get up early on Saturday mornings and scrounge the cabinets for baking powder, cocoa powder, brown sugar and whatever the recipe called for. I don’t know how many times I made the basic muffin recipe–mainly because we didn’t have other ingredients and it was so easy.
When I was 18 we moved and the book was somehow lost, forever gone. I had seen a version of it at someones house once and felt a pang grief for that loss. No other book was the same, the funny quotes and whimsical drawings, the pages on how to set up a proper ‘modern’ kitchen, and the personal quotes and suggestions from the women that worked in the Gold Medal test kitchen in Minneapolis MN.
The book is filled with things that made it more personal rather than just pages of recipes. There were substitutions for chocolate–using cocoa powder and melted shortening, or if you only had an 8-inch pan vs. a 9-inch. With variations on just about every recipe, it was/is a practical gold mine of knowledge. General Mills commissioned the book so it suggested you use Gold Medal flour or Softasilk brands and of course shortening, not butter, after all this is ‘modern’ baking. Never at the time would I have dreamed I’d become a professional pastry chef. I apprenticed in pastry kitchens of hotels and collected many recipe books but that Betty Crocker book was my foundation and my first love.
One day in the 90’s I had read that the entire book was re-printed and issued in it’s complete original form. I nearly jumped with glee and bought it. Memories remembered and some forgotten flooded back as I read it from cover to cover. I still love looking at it and my heart sings as I smile at those whimsical drawings and quotes. It’s my go to for cake baking, and it has recipes for now vintage cakes like Lord and Lady Baltimore Cakes–named for George Calvert one of the wealthiest colonizers of America. The Brown Eyed Susan cake–a marble cake with orange frosting and chocolate shavings which looks like brown eyed Susan flowers. The Old Kentucky Nut cake–from famous Kentuckian, actress Irene Dunne, and a Silver White cake with coconut cream from Mrs. James F. Mason–the most hospitable and gracious of homemakers says the caption.
My suggestion as was the facilitator in the workshop is to find something that sparks a story–because it’s really all about the stories and not so much about anything else.