The legacy of The Cook Book and snow days in the kitchen

I’m not a fan of excessive heat so I have to admit that in the last week or so, I’ve been fantasizing about cold weather. Yes, I will complain when it’s freezing out, but I’m sort of craving a day off, with cold weather outside and cooking going on in my little kitchen at home.

While we are in our hottest time of the year, I’m thinking about snow days.

Remember snow days when we were kids? I remember when our teacher would call and say we didn’t have to make the 2-mile journey to our country school at District 60 because the weather was too bad.

Because we all lived so close to the school, getting down the road really wasn’t the issue. There were tractors and pickups and such for all that.

It was usually because it was so cold the stove in the building couldn’t keep up, in order to keep us all warm. Or the visibility was so bad somebody might get lost in the yard during recess.

On those days we were able to stay home, Mom usually put us to work. She’d make us clean out drawers or scrub floors or fold diapers.

But we also had a ton of fun too.

We went sledding, of course, and the boys often went to the farm to help Dad with jobs that went by the wayside otherwise.

For me, the days were special because that’s when Mom and I would embark on special journeys in the kitchen.

That’s where I learned to love cooking . . . being creative and stocking up the freezer with all sorts of things that would make our future lives a lot easier when making meals for the Mueller masses.

My mother had this big, beautiful hard-bound Betty Crocker cookbook (she said it was a treasured wedding present). It was more than a cookbook – it was like a guide for the greenest of the green in meal planning, preparation and execution.

It had glorious photographs of beautiful menus and special dishes. There were pretty ladies making pretty recipes for pretty dinner parties in pretty settings. My result was usually me in a floured shirt making odd renditions for my folks and a bunch of kids around a little table standing on yellow linoleum.

But on those special snow days, Mom would hand me The Cookbook (the name to which it was always referred) and tell me to just open it to any page. Any page. It was with great anticipation that I just reached in, closed my eyes and excitedly opened it to whatever new journey we were about to take.

The rule was that whatever menu was on that page, those were the dishes we were going to make. Well, if we had all the ingredients (seeing how we lived pretty far from town and sometimes the cupboards became pretty depleted by the end of the month).

Without opening, we could already tell the pages that had been used before as they were usually crinkly to the touch because I’d spilled ingredients on them in the past. We steered away from those because the goal was to make something we’d never tried before. It was experiment day.

I was only 10 when I made my first Beef Wellington. It was a scary but exciting journey as I embarked on something which was classified as being in the “difficult” level. My mother, an expert in the making of all dough-related products, helped with the outside as I got the meat ready. That evening, we baked off that dish with hope in our hearts and scrambled eggs waiting in the wings just in case it didn’t turn out. The result? It was amazing. And I was so proud to serve my father something he said he’d “never seen before.” I don’t know if he meant it was so awful he’d never seen it before or if it was so spectacular it was beyond his caliber. It didn’t matter – everyone ate it and I couldn’t believe I made it.

There were days I made Jell-O molds (that was a popular thing back in the 1970s, if you are old enough to recall) – which sometimes turned out just like the picture in The Cookbook ; other times, just a blob of runny mess and clumps of fruit cocktail sliding off a platter.

My mother didn’t care . . . she said it was part of the adventure.

I learned to make soups of all kinds, even those with fancy names that really just ended up being cream of vegetable or beef stew in the end.

Mom taught me how to make gravy and stuffing (we ate it all the time, not just on Thanksgiving) and scalloped potatoes and spaghetti sauce from the tomatoes we had canned the summer before.

We made so many cookies of so many shapes and flavors. I loved when it was declared “pizza day” and it was extra special when we drug out the deep fryer for homemade doughnuts and even French fries (a delicacy for us farm kids). We made a dessert simply called “Apple Slices” and we covered the entire table with dough so I could cut out homemade noodles.

The snow day lessons were a combination of her knowledge and the interesting things we found in The Cookbook.

I loved how she expanded my understanding of cooking with what you have, taught me to try new things and carry on traditions that had been passed down for generations.

As far as The Cookbook . . . that historical book’s cover fell off about 35 years ago and the binding is barely holding together. It still exists – it was placed in a very large Ziploc bag for perpetual preservation, so as to not lose any pages, and it’s been passed on to each of us girls’ households as we got married. By having it be a traveling time capsule, everyone gets to experience Mom’s culinary expertise in some way . . . because the beginnings of that legacy lie on those crusty, gross, old, yellowed pages.

The Cookbook was Mom’s bag of tricks, I suppose, but the real joy in those snow days and reading the pages of The Cookbook was really about having experiences with her.

It may have been cold outside, but it was always so warm in her kitchen.


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