My paternal grandma has been gone for more than a decade, but yesterday I missed her something fierce. So I pulled out one of her old cookbooks: Cook with Hope. Published in 1973 by the women of Trinity United Methodist Church in Cavalier, North Dakota, it begins with a few helpful hints. Here’s one gem:
To dry lettuce, pat it with crumpled paper toweling. It absorbs water quickly and does not bruise the leaves. Lettuce for salad should be well dried and cold.
I mean no disrespect to the women of Cavalier, but drying lettuce with paper towels sounds less like a “helpful hint” and more like common sense. Maybe paper towels were a new thing back then. Maybe lettuce had only recently arrived in North Dakota. Maybe people had been standing out in their yards shaking the dickens out of leaves of iceberg before this book hit the shelves.
If Grandma was a good cook, you wouldn’t know it by the recipes she added to Cook with Hope. The back page includes a handwritten recipe for “Fluffy Rice.” What’s in fluffy rice? Rice, water, salt. So basically, it’s just rice. Still, she had her standards. Next to a recipe for Rhubarb Cake she penned “no good.”
Original Nestlé Tollhouse Chocolate-chip Cookies were one of Grandma’s signature dishes. She also loved banana bread, Special K bars, and Duncan Hines blueberry muffins with streusal topping. And every Christmas Eve she made oyster stew with canned oysters. I’m not sure why she bothered. Only my grandpa and a couple of brave uncles ever partook. She didn’t. I certainly didn’t. I imagine that the china tureen she used for serving the stew (which now belongs to me) thinks wistfully about oysters from time to time.
In the past few years, I have become, well, a bit of a food snob. I make my own bread. I make my own yogurt. Last night I made my own tomato soup. I can’t remember the last time a can of Campbell’s graced my shelves, let alone made its way into my dinner.
Cook with Hope, a book based on convenience, condensed soup, and copious amounts of margarine, inspired equal parts fascination and horror. I have taken the liberty of scanning a few of the worst recipes. First up, Wiener Soup (p. 268).
The book showcases many recipes by Mrs. Ed Steiger. Several of them included wieners, butter, milk, and crackers — apparently pantry staples in the Steiger home. But none seemed quite so horrifying or misguided as wiener soup. The idea of sliced hot dogs floating in a sea of buttery, salty milk makes me want to wretch. Soren and I fantasized about inviting over some of our foodie friends and serving them wiener soup without letting them in on the joke. We would sit with our serious faces and silently sip our soup. “What?” I might ask, “Don’t you like it?”
After choking down a bowl of wiener soup, our guests might expect some sort of entree. A big dish of mock chicken (p. 245) always delights. The recipe includes two more North Dakota pantry staples — Jello and mayo. (A note: When recipes call for “salad dressing,” they mean mayo. Because, really, what’s a salad without a hefty dollop of artery clogging Hellman’s?)
If we needed a side dish for this fantasy dinner, I can think of no better candidate than Salmon and Banana Salad (p.246). While you or I might serve salmon with dill sauce or string beans, Grace Enerson has come up with a delightful concoction that includes salmon, bananas, pineapple, and walnuts.
The more Soren and I read, the more our horror grew. “People really ate like this!” he said in wonder. “And they lived.” I think it made him feel better about smoking. Yes, he smokes. But at least he doesn’t eat lemon Jello with tuna and cream of chicken soup. That shit will KILL you.
Grandma didn’t smoke. And she didn’t eat much either — maybe a muffin, a buttered roll, or a slice of banana bread. She claimed to have no appetite. While we roasted hot dogs and marshmallows over the fire, she sat in the living room, watching and worrying that I would wander into the flames or spear myself with a marshmallow stick. Maybe she clipped recipes and taped them into Cook with Hope while she worried. I like to think that Mrs. Ed Steiger’s recipe for Wiener Soup would have made her laugh too.