This is the last post in our pre-Thanksgiving Rubenstein Library Test Kitchen series. We hope you’ve enjoyed exploring our collections through food and found some find some historical inspiration for your own Thanksgiving. If you’re local join us on December 3rd from 3-4:30 in Perkins 217 for our tasting event and a chance to sample these recipes!
When I set off on my hunt for a recipe for my turn in the Rubenstein Library Test Kitchen, I knew only that I wanted a fun challenge. For a search that began with nothing in particular to guide it, I found a very lovely little book that seemed perfectly suited for me in my task. One thing I love about working in the Rubenstein Library is that I’m never sure what I’ll come across in a day’s work but I’m always delighted or intrigued by what I find, and this book was no exception! It is an artists’ book called Light and Flaky: Portrait of the Artist’s Mother: a Cookbook (1982) and was made by Lise Melhorn-Boe. The work combines Melhorn-Boe’s mother’s memories of experiences and adventures in cooking along with recipes from these stories and photographs of her mother throughout her life. And the handmade paper that covers the book is made from tea towels, aprons, tablecloths and dish cloths. The book was collected by the Sallie Bingham Center for Women’s History and Culture here at the Rubenstein.
In the spirit of the book’s many memories about cooking for a large family, I chose two recipes to make for the lovely family that lives next door to me. The recipes I chose also give a good sense of the work as a whole, since these recipes are accompanied by touching and silly remembrances and photographs. I made a Corn, Rice, and Beef Casserole and a Blueberry Pie for my friend, her parents, and her two boys (4 and 8 years old respectively).
I began my cooking adventure as soon as I returned home from the Rubenstein one evening: I first made the pie crust. The recipe calls for an all-Crisco crust, and I just happened to have a very very old tin of it in my cupboard. Perfect! Also slightly disturbing, since I couldn’t figure out where it came from. I didn’t tell my guests that, though! I let the crust chill for a while as I assembled the casserole.
It’s an extremely simple recipe. I cooked up a cup of rice, opened a can of corn, browned a pound of ground beef, and threw everything together in a dish to bake for 20 minutes at 350. I thought I’d jazz up this plain casserole just a bit for my special guests, and added onions and a dash of ground cloves (a flavor sensation that I picked up from my own mom) to the meat, and threw a bunch of cheddar on top towards the end of its baking. When the dish was cooked, I also chopped up some parsley and chives from my porch for a tasty garnish. This was an easy and fast recipe to fix for a bunch of folks at a moment’s notice, and there could be endless improvisation depending on what you had on hand.
Back to the pie: When the time came during my preparations to roll out my crust, I had a lot of trouble keeping it together. My guess is that I hadn’t given it enough time to chill. But I was determined to have everything done in time, so I pressed shards of it into my pie dish anyway, in a slapdash and frantic fashion, and poured in 3 cups of blueberries that I’d frozen from the summer (tossed with flour, sugar, butter, lemon juice, cinnamon, and nutmeg, as the recipe suggests). Although the recipe noted that this crust would be enough for two, I didn’t find that to be the case, so I also whipped up a crumble topping with flour, brown sugar, butter, and spices.
Things came together just in time after all. The casserole was warming and hearty, and a good reminder that cooking for friends doesn’t have to be complicated or fancy. I noticed that one of my young taste-testers ate it up in a flash and quickly disappeared under the table to begin tying guests’ shoelaces together. I took this as an excellent review.
The pie wasn’t done until after the boys’ bedtime, which means that I had a lot leftover and have been enjoying it with ice cream for breakfast ever since. Despite small disasters in its making, and although it won’t supplant my tried and true butter-only pastry crust recipe, it was pretty delicious. It was also fitting that it would give me trouble since, in one of the stories in this book, Lise’s mother Pauline recalls summers when she would bake wild blueberry pies with her aunt; on one such occasion, her aunt mistakenly uses salt instead of sugar. Even in their attempts to hide the evidence of their error from an angry mother, they are beset with trials: “We tried burning [it] in a little old iron stove – we just had enormous clumps of large crystals, which we dragged out to the garden, and covered with earth and tears.” Luckily, no tears were shed in the making of my pie misshapen though it was.
I looked at this book alongside another by Melhorn-Boe called Recipes (2001), also part of the Sallie Bingham Center’s collection. It is housed in an old recipe card tin, and contains memories and reflections of several women about family and food, typed on recipe cards and divided by topic — including “Atmosphere” (stern, relaxed, in silence, in front of the television), “The Cook” (stories about mothers and fathers and how they shared kitchen work, or didn’t), “Force-feeding” (thoughts about weight, body image, and abhorrent foods forced upon the writers – like lima beans!), and “Manners” (mouths closed, guests served first, elbows off the table).
Both works are funny and sweet (and sometimes bittersweet), and contain much food for thought about women’s roles in the kitchen and in the domestic labour of family life generally, and how these have changed over time.
Post contributed by Dominique Dery, Research Services Intern