As Baltimore writer Sheri Venema reacquainted herself with her mother’s quaint church cookbook, she pondered “a time when a woman became a suffix to her husband” — once her baking was done, she realized much more.
The recipe for Steamed Cranberry Pudding did not speak to me at first. The directions seemed too cryptic: Waxed paper? Tin cans? Also, the tattered cookbook in which I found the recipe originated in the long-ago kitchens of women in my childhood church, and it seemed laden with dishes predictable and dull.
Tuna Noodle Casserole.
Miracle Cheese Cake (lemon Jell-O with cream cheese and sugar).
Oven Barbecue (Spam, tomato sauce, Worcestershire sauce).
Typed on a manual typewriter and then Xeroxed and bound with cheap plastic coil, the cookbooks were sold to raise money for a church society. My copy long ago lost its red cover. I sometimes took it out of its protective Ziploc bag to find a cookie recipe, but mostly I felt superior to this little book with its stains and misspellings. Clearly it came from a time when cream of mushroom soup and oleo ruled every kitchen in my neighborhood, and I had walked away from the Midwestern housewifery prescribed in its pages. I owned a wok and a Silver Palate cookbook. I made my own hummus.
The cookbook also comes from a time when a woman became a suffix to her husband. The recipe for Fresh Peach Pie was from Mrs. H. Van Ess (Goldie), the One-Pan Caramel Brownies from Mrs. J. VanderHeide (Ann) and the Pigs in the Blanket from Mrs. N. Mersman (Elaine). Reduced to parentheticals, the women seem to float off the page, anchored only by an afterthought. Without those curved brackets to reveal their names, they might be remembered as nothing more than their husband’s initial, their bran muffins and their banana bread.
I’ve recently started watching the first season of “Mad Men” and I recognize the food from 1960 (“Creamed spinach or creamed corn?” asks a waiter at a posh restaurant). I also recognize the women, like Mrs. Donald Draper (Betty), encased by the brackets and expectations of a man’s world.
The women in my cookbook were our neighbors. They wore aprons and sensible shoes. To church they wore hats and gloves. One of them drove a Thunderbird, which I thought was exotic. They made the comfort food of my childhood: Blueberry Buckle (p. 16 in the cookbook), a moist coffee cake with fresh Michigan berries; and Banket (p. 59), a Dutch Christmas treat with an almond-paste filling inside a flaky crust.
My mother — Mrs. J. Venema (Irene) — contributed recipes for her fabulous pecan rolls and her chocolate fudge sauce. She also made helpful notes on other recipes: 1 pkg. of dates = 8 oz., she wrote on Mrs. J. Kett (Marciel)’s recipe for date nut bread. The notes are still there, phantoms in my mother’s handwriting, almost 20 years after she died and the book came to be mine.
The cookbook starts with breads and cakes, then veers off briefly into main courses (Good Easy Casserole, Pork & Beef Casserole, Spam Country Dinner). Soon after, the pages joyously careen back to what these women really adored: cookies and pies and fudge and lemon squares and brownies. All things sweet make up the heart of this cookbook.
The recipe for Steamed Cranberry Pudding came from Mrs. A. Van Eerden (Bess). I remember Bess Van Eerden. She was the sweet second wife of her husband, who died at home one summer Sunday while Bess was in her church pew.
Here are her spare directions:
1 1/3 C. flour
2 C. halved cranberries
1/3 C. boiling water
2 tsp soda
½ C molasses
½ tsp salt
Dissolve soda in hot water and combine with other ingredients. Pour into cans and cover with waxed paper and steam 2 hours. Serve hot with the following sauce:
½ C butter
½ C cream
1 tsp vanilla
Combine and bring to a boil, then beat until creamy. This receipe [sic] is over 100 years old.
That last sentence intrigued me. No other recipe in the book included any information – even as slight as this – about its provenance. This was no Velveeta-and-canned-mushroom dish put together by Betty Draper circa 1960. People savored this pudding, perhaps, during the Civil War. Simple though the recipe looked, it offered a challenge.
I first assayed this pudding one year when my in-laws were coming for Christmas. But I had many questions: What size cans? How do you steam pudding? I turned to “Joy of Cooking” for help. Irma Rombauer’s best-seller calls for cans with tight lids. I didn’t have any, so I tried it Bess Van Eerden’s way and used waxed paper on two cans that had held 16 ounces of, say, tomatoes. Next, I converted a lobster pot, with its basket insert, into a steamer. During the required two hours of cooking, I hovered, watching as the batter rose and strained against the waxed paper, secured to the cans with twine. I had no idea how, when served, a small round of brown bread pudding, dotted with red cranberries and swaddled in its butter cream sauce, would make us all swoon.
This Christmas I made it again. Seeing my batter in cans with their waxed paper caps made me rue my smugness, I who once thought this thin book had nothing to teach me. Now I pondered those neighborhood kitchens, the ghost women on the yellowed pages in front of me. This time I added rum to the sauce.
I went back to the cookbook and read other recipes more closely. All this time I had regarded the women as willingly sidelined by their culture, so easily satisfied with Jell-O and meatloaf, with pineapple fluff and a sprinkle of crushed potato chips. But I had missed something about these wives. They did not batter the barricades nor break themselves against their parentheses. They poked. They nudged. They pressed chocolate kisses into their peanut butter cookies, glorified the common gelatin, magnified the delights of cream cheese, sweetened everything, exhorted their egg whites into proud, shiny meringue and, not often but once in a while, were brave enough to add garlic to a dish. In this way they made themselves Ann and Goldie, Marciel and Irene. They dared more than I had known.
Sheri Venema has no parentheses in her name. She is a journalist and teacher who has worked at newspapers in Maryland, Connecticut, Minnesota and Arkansas and now lives in Baltimore’s Hamilton neighborhood with her husband and two dogs.