Why do people learn to cook? Clearly there is the survival factor: you have to eat to live and you have to cook the food. But in an era of frozen foods and microwaves and carry-out, its not the imperative it once was.
For some of us, learning to cook was the natural outcome of loving food and the magic that happens in the kitchen. For some of us there was someone we admired who showed us and mentored us – sometimes from a very young age. For others, there was some food that captured our hearts (and our mouths) and we HAD to know how to make it.
My mother wasn’t a bad cook, but (unlike her big sister, Esther who loved to cook) it didn’t interest her much. Each evening as I was growing up, my mother cooked a piece of meat (steak, hamburger, chicken), a baked potato and a frozen square of vegetables. She served that with a wooden salad bowl filled with iceberg lettuce, tomatoes and radishes, a bottle of Wishbone Italian dressing and a few slices of bread. On Fridays the bread was challah in honor of Shabbat. For special occasions she would make oven-barbequed baby back ribs or Italian spaghetti sauce.
But there was an appreciation for “good food” in my home growing up. It was a treat to be taken to a nice restaurant (or Russell’s, the local barbeque joint. Or Hoe Cow, the Chinese place) where we could enjoy that “good food.” It was not uncommon for my brother or me, even as children, to order a whole baby Maine lobster. Or escargots. Or whatever that restaurant served that we couldn’t get at home.
As a very young bride (shockingly young by today’s standards), living in my husband’s hometown of Dayton, Ohio, it fell to me to plan and secure and cook whatever we ate. Even then, food occurred for me as an art form and a self-expression. And in those days in that small Midwestern town, with maybe three exceptions, the only place in town to get tasty, well-prepared food, was in people’s homes.
My new mother-in-law was an expert cook. She had cut her chops in New Orleans, even then a food town, where she had lived for several years. Her home was one where everyone knew they could expect to eat the good stuff. She even created a cookbook for the Dayton Women’s Club: Keys to Our Kitchens.
Keys to Our Kitchens was a reflection of its day. It has an oddly nostalgic – or maybe just back-in-the-day – quality to it. All of the recipes are credited from Mrs. Sidney Copland or Mrs. John Margolis or Mrs. Zachary Abuza. There is not one woman – one actual cook – whose real name is listed.
It had its share of recipes that consisted of taking a can of condensed creamed soup and mixing it with milk, salad dressing, rice and crab. But it also had some real gems from thoughtful, creative, intelligent home cooks who knew how to make food sing. And while most of these recipes reflect the food trends of their day, many still have the fundamentals on which to build a dish that is both contemporary and satisfying to today’s diners.
And Keys to Our Kitchens became my first blueprint for cooking. To this day, some of the best things that have ever come out of my kitchen were created – or inspired – from that homespun cookbook: Turkey Tetrazzini (the only reason to have Thanksgiving in our family), cornbread oyster stuffing for that turkey, rice waffles, gumbo, brownies-from-scratch. And more. The pages are deeply stained from use. The binding barely holds together. It is a treasured part of my life.
It is a long time since I have been married to that husband, Fellow FoodBeest, but I still enjoy his mother’s cookbook – and my friendship with her.
Once a year, in the spring, when rhubarb shows up in the market, I make a dessert called Rhubarb Crunch. I don’t think I had ever heard of rhubarb until I discovered it in Keys to Our Kitchens, but it remains a family favorite. I made it for guests this week.
I am re-creating the recipe below just as it was published in the old Dayton Women’s Club cookbook from its creator, Dayton Women’s Club Member, Mrs. Bryson Burns. And with both thanks and apologies to Mrs. Burns, I have included some variations and updates, along with photos that were certainly not from the original.
You want to try it. You want to eat it. Trust me on this, Fellow FoodBeest.
What you need to make Rhubarb Crunch
Variations and updates that I’ve added are in italics.
1 C corn flake crumbs (it comes packaged that way or you can put your own corn flakes in a blender and turn them into crumbs)
1 C sifted flour
¼ C brown sugar, firmly packed
1 T cinnamon
(1 T sea salt)
½ C melted butter
1 C sour cream (or fat-free yogurt)
1¼ C white sugar
3 T cornstarch
½ t cinnamon
3 cups (more is better) rhubarb, cut into bite-sized pieces (Don’t use any leaves: they are poisonous)
How to make Rhubarb Crunch
Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
Combine cornflake crumbs, flour, brown sugar, 1 t cinnamon and butter. Mix well until you have a crumbly mixture. Press half evenly and firmly in the bottom of a 9”x9” pan (or round equivalent cake pan), reserving the other half of the crumb mixture for topping.
Beat egg slightly and combine with sour cream or yogurt. Mix together the white sugar, cornstarch and ½ teaspoon of cinnamon. Stir into sour cream mixture, together with rhubarb.
Spread over crumb crust. Sprinkle with remaining crumb mixture.
Bake about one hour until a knife inserted into the center comes our clean.
Serve warm or cold. Serves 9.
Comment: This is a delicious way to serve rhubarb and is just tart enough to serve for dessert after a rich dinner or luncheon.
Mrs. Bryson Burns
Now it’s your turn, Fellow FoodBeest. Why did you learn to cook? When did it happen? Why did you take it on? And how did you learn? Or did you? Please use the comment section below.