May 6, 2005

Cornucopia / Cynthia Dewes

A day to salute mothers and Betty Crocker

Betty Crocker taught me to cook. Certainly this was not because no one in my family knew how. My mom was a wonderful cook, from a family of wonderful cooks. The relatives still mention her 13-egg angel food cake, beaten by hand and decorated with real violet blossoms.

On my dad’s side, Grandma Oare and all the aunts consistently produced mouthwatering food. Their jule kage, krumkake, rosettes and other recipes appeared often in their church and extension homemaker club cookbooks.

It’s just that my mom, being the perfectionist that she was, allowed no interference in her kitchen activities. I was allowed to watch her, but my efforts to help were confined to grunt work like chopping nuts or washing dishes. Luckily, I memorized some of what I saw her do.

Mom was trained as a cook not only at her mother’s knee, but also in the homes of wealthy people, where she’d learned gourmet extras like carving radish roses, garnishing with herbs, and making crème fraiche and Bechamel sauce. She had a frayed copy of a ledger book she’d used in a high school Latin class, which contained conjugated verbs in the first pages and handwritten recipes in the rest. Nothing went to waste in those days.

Furthermore, cooking was something only women did, except perhaps for male chefs in faraway Europe. It was a skill every girl was supposed to acquire as part of her mission in life, i.e. homemaking and raising a family. Good food was a major sign of a woman’s love for her ­husband and kids.

Mom had a copy of the first Betty Crocker Picture Cookbook published in 1950, and she gave me a later edition of it for a wedding present. Today I have her original, two or three of my own editions and the ledger book, all dog-eared, food-stained and beloved.

A recent book by Susan Marks titled Finding Betty Crocker tells the interesting story of Betty Crocker and her times. Since she was a creature of General Mills, a flour-milling company located in Minnesota, Betty was a home girl to us. And the recipes in her books seemed to appeal to our Midwestern tastes.

From Betty’s detailed directions and memories of Mom’s cooking, I finally learned to cook the usual and also the difficult things. I’d finally arrived, but the Betty Crocker connection continued to crop up.

My father-in-law worked for General Mills, and on one of his business trips to the Amish part of Pennsylvania he picked up a recipe for corn-chicken chowder. This appeared in the 1950 Betty Crocker cookbook even before I’d met him. Strangely enough, while it sounds delicious, the chowder is one of the few recipes in the book that I haven’t tried.

Later, one of my aunts worked in the Betty Crocker kitchens as a food “technician.” She produced meals for the executive dining room and tested recipes. Of course, she’s a great cook, and we all call her “Betty Crocker” to this day.

On Mother’s Day, we honor those women who nurture us physically, emotionally and spiritually throughout our lives. We are our mother’s sons and daughters forever, after all. But on this day, I’d also like to give some credit to Betty Crocker, patron and mentor of mothers everywhere.

(Cynthia Dewes, a member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle, is a regular columnist for The Criterion.)

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