Since I started this blog about a month ago, I have been asking my mother a lot of questions about the ingredients, the people who are credited for the recipes, and various family members and relationships. I hope that Mom is enjoying these looks into the past as much as I am. Since Gram passed away more than 20 years ago, it is difficult to remember a lot about her even though this project has helped me remember the sound of her voice. Some might not think that is a big deal, but in the days before easy access to home movies and audio recordings, preserving the sound of a loved one’s voice was impossible.
Anyway, my hope is to make it easier for my generation and our children to remember and know a little bit more about the lovely lady Gram was. Here are a couple reminiscences from Mom, about her days as a girl growing up in Erie, PA and spending time in Gram’s kitchen.
Jessie Beck, who gave us the recipe for Candy Bar Cookies, was a good friend of Gram’s. They attended the same church (First Presbyterian Church of the Covenant) and Mrs. Beck was also a piano teacher. She taught my Mom for a while, but later took on the teaching of Edward Brewer (youngest of Gram’s children) at around age 2 or 2 1/2 when his musical abilities became apparent. Little Edward went on to become a symphony harpsichordist specializing in the works of Bach, Handel and other baroque composers. You can hear his lovely work on this YouTube clip. Gram was incredibly proud, and so must have been Mrs. Beck! The Becks were tall people, which in the early 20th century must have been difficult for Mrs. Beck, but perhaps that is one of the aspects that cemented her friendship with Gram, as Gram was also quite tall for a woman of her generation. The shared an enduring friendship that lasted for many many years.
Back on the Applesauce Cake recipe, I commented “oh yummy, calls for fat!”. Well, my mom explained it this way. “During WWII when there was very little fat to be had – it was rationed – the housewives used just about any kind they could to bake with. One of the best kinds of fat was chicken. It made wonderful cookies. Mother also tried bacon fat, but it was too strong and made the food taste funny – except maybe chocolate something.” Today we can’t imagine using fat for much of anything, but when you really think about it, butter isn’t much less than fat; it’s just processed fat.
Here’s a memory about oleo, which was an early name for margarine. Oleo, in case you didn’t know, has been around for more than a hundred years, but in the mid-twentieth century, it became more popular through marketing and fat rationing during the war. Mom says “Oleo was just beginning to be marketed, it was in a one-pound hunk that was the color of Crisco. In order to make the white oleo yellow, little dye packets were included in the package and then someone (usually one of the kids) was given the task of blending it, usually with a fork. This usually resulted in a mixture that had light and dark yellow streaks. But the end result was that it did look more like butter.” The coloring of oleo was restricted in the US and the powerful dairy lobby would have liked to see oleo go by the wayside, but it was too late and by 1967 it became legal to produce yellow-colored oleo/margarine. (Doesn’t that just sound crazy??)
I hope we will continue to get these memories and history lessons from my Mom. They really are precious and offer insight that we modern bakers and cooks often do not have. As always, knowing the reason behind something can help shape the way a person utilizes their knowledge. It’s also nice to think of Gram and Mrs. Beck sharing recipes over a cup of coffee at the kitchen table or after church.