My Grandmothers' Gifts to Me
The Cookbook Generation
by Remy Tumin
I never knew my grandmother Phila, but I know her recipes well.
I felt like I knew her through her melt-in-your-mouth cookies that my mom and I make every Christmas, heavy on the sugar, even heavier on the butter.
My mom used to make her chicken and broccoli casserole with yellow curry as a special treat. It was creamy and rich, nothing like what Mom normally made.
We still have Phila’s recipe cards neatly organized in a tin recipe box.
But her cooking, along with many of my grandparents generation, was limited. Phila and my grandfather Werner immigrated to New York from Germany right before World War II; my grandmother Sylvia grew up in Detroit with carp swimming in the bathtub before it was prepared for gefilte fish, and my grandfather Mel was a Newark, N.J. kid through and through.
When my grandparents did cook, they relied heavily on cookbooks. Today, we may lean on them more for inspiration than guidelines. But for a generation of cooks, they were used religiously.
My dad’s mother, Sylvia, now 90, needed the support of cookbooks. “Anything that would give me some confidence. I was not a confident cook. I was a medium-good cook, but not like you,” my grandmother said to me at her apartment outside of Princeton, N.J.
Cookbooks have held different weight in my family’s kitchens over the years. They were used to help assimilate to American life before inspiring a new way to think about cooking. My parents and their siblings became great cooks in spite (possibly in revolt) of being raised on canned food and TV dinners in a time when convenience and leans were regarded high above anything fresh.
And they all passed that new way of thinking about cooking on to me and my brother. I grew up with overflowing shelves of cookbooks that had tattered recipes sticking out from favorite dishes. The mark of a good cookbook always meant its pages were caked with flour and butter and had hand-written notes in the margins.
Cookbooks can carry much more than just recipes—they offer a personal window into history. They all serve as reference points, and help me connect the dots of my own culinary footprint.
Sylvia’s footprint starts in Detroit. Her first cookbook was published by the Detroit Hadassah (a Zionist wom- en’s organization), called Like Mama Used to Make. Recipes for chopped liver, potato latkes and potato kugel are still peppered with notes about what my dad or uncle preferred and which apples were best for the haroset (Macintosh). The black and white illustrations of hands hovering over the Sabbath candles, cutlery, and mixing bowls are worn but rich as ever.
“I didn’t know how to cook at all, I didn’t know the difference between baking and roasting,” Grandma said. “For me, and others, cookbooks provide a base you can grow from.”
About a year ago, Grandma gave me her first edition copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child. While she didn’t use it very often, it did hold a story. She and Julia Child had met while my grandfather was on a Fulbright Fellowship in Oslo, Norway, and Julia’s husband, Paul, was working for the U.S. embassy there.
“She was exactly the way she was on television – she was fluty and unpretentious and thoroughly nice,” Grandma told me.
One night, Julia and Paul Child invited my grandpa Mel over for after-dinner drinks.
“He came back home and said, ‘Oh, I just had the most extraordinary wonderful dish’, and I was very grumpy because I had spent the day doing my Norwegian laundry,” she said. “He said it was something called quiche. This is 1960, so who knew about quiche?”
“I had never seen him so excited about any dish.”
My grandmother waited for the day she too would get invited to a party at the Childs. It finally came.
“We went there, and she’s very gracious and very charming—with Julia, what you see is what you get,” Grandma said. “Julia eventually excuses herself and goes into the kitchen and comes back and she’s carrying a big tray. And I look at the tray and I don’t see any quiche. But what I do see, and I had to ask her what it was, is reindeer salami.”
“You can imagine my disappointment,” my grandmother said, still carrying that letdown nearly 60 years later. “I do not recommend it.”
A year later, Julia Child would go on to publish Mastering the Art of French Cooking.
My grandmother gave me her edition when I moved into my first New York apartment. I displayed it on a painter’s ladder I had found on the street and converted into a bookshelf. My own collection began to grow steadily.
I grew up cooking in a New York City galley kitchen that could accommodate two cooks; anyone else would have to sit on the floor and watch. Attached to the kitchen was a hallway just barely big enough to hold a bookshelf. The top of its white shelves were dedicated to pottery, some glassware used on special occasions and picnic gear. It quickly became a repository for tchotchkes.
But the bottom two shelves were reserved for cookbooks: Overflowing cookbooks highlighting cuisines from around the world and binders full of recipes that were cut out and placed in plastic sleeves. Stuffed was one way to describe it.
When my mom moved to the Vineyard full-time a few years ago, there was some pairing down involved from our cookbook shelves. But many of the classics made the transition from city to country life.
My grandmother Phila’s copy of The Settlement Cook Book: The Way to a Man’s Heart, was one of those cookbooks that made the move from New York to our home in Oak Bluffs. Inside were recipes for fresh and cooked fruits, desserts and icebox cakes, chafing dish recipes and “coffee for 40 people” that included one pound of coffee, one egg, eight quarts of freshly boiling water and 1 1⁄2 pints of cream.
Her 1943 edition of the Joy of Cooking, by Irma S. Rombauer, with its baby blue plaid cover design hanging on by a thread, also stuck out.
“This book reflects my life,” Irma Rombauer wrote in her foreword. “It has been a pleasure to compile this record of our American way of life. Tradition speaks to us in its pages, a tradition of plenty which should always be ours, and which will be, with the intelligent use of our mighty weapon, the cooking spoon.”
I opened the pages and found hand written notes and recipes from my grandmother, and mom. Mom brought the cookbook along with her when she opened a restaurant in San Francisco, the Psalms Café, in 1973. The restaurant was a collective on Haight Street.
“Hippie food is very ‘in’ now,” Mom proclaimed this spring, taking stake in her contribution to the movement.
Mom’s restaurant drew inspiration from the Moosewood Cookbook among others, which featured recipes from the namesake restaurant in Ithaca, N.Y. The vegetarian cookbook helped serve as a guide for the Psalms Cafe and other restaurants looking to move away from the canned movement and reconnect with real food, Mom said.
“We made everything from scratch,” she told me. If her recipes weren’t from the Italian guys who sold her fish at the market or farmers at the produce market, they were from cookbooks like Moosewood.
“It was the resurgence of making stuff from real product in reaction to canned goods and convenience food, it had real taste,” Mom said. “Immigrant cooking got lost in translation.”
But her teaching me how to cook never did. If my favorite childhood cookbooks are any evidence, my mom always encouraged exploration.
Kids Cooking: A Very Slightly Messy Manual from Klutz Press has so much butter and sugar from years of reference to the brownie and chocolate chip cookie recipe that you can barely see the text.
Most of my cookbooks now are still getting broken in and barely have thumbprints in them. I’ve been back in New York for over two years after living on the Vineyard and have only recently acquired a working stove. But I’ve brought my cookbooks with me from apartment to apartment, carefully arranged on that painter’s ladder.
I had my brother over for dinner the other night for the second time in those two plus years, a milestone he happily pointed out. It got me thinking about that tall narrow bookcase, and the cookbooks spilling out beyond the edge.
I made him chicken thighs with Meyer lemons under the skin, a dish I adapted from a New York Times recipe a while back. It’s a spring meal I’ve made in some variation over the years, no cookbook required.