Cookbooks in a League of Their Own

By Sharon Kebschull Barrett
I made pad Thai the other night, and I’m still celebrating.
Days later, I get a little thrill just thinking about it. And no, my life isn’t really that sad.
After several years of increasingly kidded-down meals, I’d begun to despair of ever eating interesting adult food again. Then, hark! Was that really a “Mom, this is great!” I just heard?

With that, we knew the joy of my son rediscovering his adventuresome baby’s palate, and I’m setting off on a (re)discovery journey of my own. For too long, I haven’t bothered to try interesting ethnic food, or had the time to seek out some of the more unusual ingredients they require.
2004 promises to be different. I’m finally going to follow through on getting the recipe for a friend’s Persian celery stew, which she brought over when our daughter was born, warming our hearts as well as stomachs. I’m going to cook more of the Thai food we love. If the baby starts taking a longer nap, I might even spend an afternoon pleating dumplings.
At the same time, I’m also setting off on an exploration of my past. The new year will bring me some old food loves, brought to mind again by a dish my big sister made for her son’s birthday supper with friends.
Seeing that platter of Pepperidge Farm rolls brushed with poppy seeds, Swiss cheese, butter and ham instantly transported me to 1984, when we made pan after pan of these “Ham Delights” for holiday parties. These Junior League cookbook-ish rolls certainly weren’t haute cuisine, but oh, are they good.
After I ate them again, I came home and asked my mother for her old Junior League books, now falling apart, crammed with clippings and check marks next to recipes Mom thought looked promising. I know I’m supposed to make sophisticated, witty and subtle put-downs about these books (as a recent New York Times article did), but I just can’t get all snarky about something so innocent. Aside from the cream of (junk) recipes, there’s much worth making in them.
And even the “cream of ” recipes can be redeemed, if you make the soup yourself. For sheer comfort, some of the most basic recipes in these books can’t be beat.
Flipping through those books brought me to the end of eighth grade, when appendicitis meant two things for me: I made my friends majorly jealous by getting to skip finals (I landed in the hospital the day exams began); and I ate almost an entire blueberry dessert when I returned home three days later and 10 pounds lighter.
My mother doesn’t remember making it, but I’ve never been able to forget just how good that blueberry torte tasted as I lounged in the living room, unable even to walk up the stairs to bed. Pulled from the pages of “A Taste of Georgia” from the Junior League of Newnan, Georgia, it called for a graham cracker crust, cream cheese filling, whipped cream, and a can of blueberry pie filling on top. After three days of Rex Hospital’s finest “bouillon” and gross-green gelatin, I thought I was eating sweet clouds.
Returning to the recipe, though, reminded me of a major pitfall of these books: They are not created by cookbook authors who write in a standardized recipe format, and they’re not rigorously tested, to put it mildly. The torte, which calls for a 9-by-13–inch pan, clearly has enough crust to cover that pan, assuming you figure out that the crust’s butter needs melting first. But the next layer requires just 3 ounces of cream cheese to cover the crust. Maybe that would work if squirted from a paint sprayer; otherwise, there’s no way. My mother probably just realized that from the outset and switched to an 8-ounce block of cheese — but you need to be a decent cook already to use these books successfully.
You should also be able to overlook, without gagging, recipes whose titles end in “Elegante” or begin with “Surprise.” And if pleasantly old-fashioned writing doesn’t please you, head for current chefs’ books instead. Mom’s Junior League books, in which virtually all the recipe credits follow the style of “Mrs. James Barrett (Sharon),” often sound to my ears even older than they are — more ’50s-ish than 1977. Overcome those hurdles, though, and you’re on your way to some solid meals your children will remember for years.
After all, I don’t expect my son to grow up fondly recalling my pad Thai. But I bet he’ll want to make that Blueberry Torte again soon, telling and re-telling its story along the way.

Recipe: 1970s Blueberry Torte

First published in the Independent Weekly, January 7, 2004

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