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I never had home-baked chocolate chip cookies growing up.

This wasn't because Mum wasn't a good baker.  She was one of those now rare creatures who could eyeball the proportions of Crisco, ice water, and flour needed to make a perfect, flaky, melt-in-your-mouth pie crust in less than five minutes, worked out her own variation on coconut cake for her sister's birthday dinner, and knew how to make a non-alcoholic fruitcake that not only looked beautiful but tasted good.  Her version of a strawberry-lime ice cream pie, made with Jell-O, Lady Borden French Vanilla, and only the freshest berries, was so good that her brother Oscar preferred it to cake for his birthday every year.

As for cookies, Mum's Christmas cookies were so in demand that she'd start baking just before Thanksgiving and continue until there were almost 200 dozen cookies frozen and waiting to be enjoyed by the family or given as gifts.  Peanut butter cookies with colored sugar…sugar cookies so light they all but dissolved on the tongue...oatmeal raisin cookies rich with butter and molasses and all manner of delights...tiny bon-bons stuffed with chocolate chips or Brazil nuts or coconut or maraschino cherries, then dipped in a sweet glaze...these were the standards, but she tried other recipes over the years.  Some were better than others, but all were good enough to put the rest of the neighborhood to shame.

So why was it that I, her only child, grew up on Mr. Chips, Vienna Fingers, or whatever the local Girl Scouts were selling?  Was it lack of maternal love?  Lack of time?  Refusal to descend to something so mundane when she could have been making a masterpiece?

Oh no.  You see, Mum only baked on special occasions, like for birthdays, parties, or the holidays.  The rest of the time we made due with whatever pastries her brother Lou brought home from Dudt's on the way home from the steel plant, or whatever Dad picked up at Foodland when he did the Saturday shopping.  “I did my time before you were born, kid,” she said to me once with a laugh when I asked why she didn't bake as much as other mothers, and though I asked again, more than once, her answer never changed.

For years I wondered what she meant, and then one night at dinner, when dishes were in the washer and the adults were in a mellow mood, she and Lou started talking about life on the Farm during the summer, and then I knew.

Most of you reading this don't know what life is like on a farm.  America is such an urban culture, and we are so divorced from how our food is actually grown, that even home gardeners have little idea of how much actual work goes into wresting vegetables from the soil, milk from the cows, and meat from the livestock.  It's hard, dirty, back-breaking labor that means getting up before dawn to tend the animals, constantly weeding and fertilizing and checking the fields, guarding against insects and marauding animals, and praying for the right mix of rain and sunshine to ensure a healthy crop....

And that's with modern technology.  Back in the early 1940's, when my grandmother decided that she'd enough of Pittsburgh and that it was time for the whole family to join her husband and youngest son on the farm they owned two hours away in Venango County, it was far worse.  The Farm itself had good soil, a clean spring and a stand of trees that was leased to International Paper as a source of pulp, but it was two hours from Pittsburgh and almost half an hour from anything that approached an actual town, so much of the time it was just my grandparents, two of my uncles, Betty, and Mum. The house, which had been built sometime in the mid to late 19th century and was reportedly a station on the Underground Railroad, had electricity and gas, but cooking space was at a premium; the regular kitchen was no more than a narrow corridor off the dining room with a tiny counter, a huge gas stove, and a Hoosier cabinet for a pantry, while the spacious summer kitchen had less counter space than I'd enjoyed in my first studio apartment and doubled as the wash house for the men working the fields.

This was the environment in which my mother, beginning in 1940 when she was twelve, had to cook the noon meals for the threshing teams.

By herself.

That's right - with only minimal help from my grandmother (who had to tend my grandfather, who had an unspecified but debilitating illness that might have been arthritis or might have been alcoholism) and zero help from Betty (who played the piano and had to keep her hands nice, don't you know), Mum had to cook the midday meal for her brothers Dan and Bob, whatever hired men were there for the season, and sometimes Lou, Charlie, or even Oscar if they were visiting for the weekend.  There were usually between eight and ten for dinner, all ravenous after a morning harvesting grain, hay, or whatever vegetables were in season, and nearly that many for an evening meal a few hours later - and after labor that was partially but not fully mechanized, they not only expected quantity, they expected quality on the huge dining room table when they stomped in, kicked the dirt off their boots and sat down to eat.

Mum got very good at this very, very fast.  Her dinners weren't fancy - she relied primarily on the old Settlement House Cookbook, with its heavy reliance on Central European roasts, stews, and side dishes - but they were delicious:  pot roasts or pork loin or chicken for the main course, accompanies by hot rolls or bread, fresh vegetables, salad of some sort, mashed or boiled potatoes, and either cake or pie, all washed down by spring water and hot black coffee.  All of this was from scratch except for the cereal products, from the meat to the salad to whatever vegetables had been brought in the night before, and all of it had to be made every day during the harvest season to fuel the work teams.

Of course this includes the desserts…and since these were either packed with fruit or frosted with butter cream, they were a terrific source of sugar for the energy boost the men needed to counteract that enormous meal so they would be able to go back out and finish the work.  And since there so many men, and so many meals, that meant that each dinner or supper had multiple pies, multiple cakes, or sometimes both.

This is why my mother, beginning when she was twelve and continuing until she graduated from college ten years later and got the hell out of Van moved to Pittsburgh, baked dozens of cookies, enough sweet breads to stock a small bakery, and twenty or thirty pies and cakes every single week during the summer harvest.

Is it any wonder she got so good?  

Or that I got Chips Ahoy?

For all her skill as a cook, Mum never showed the slightest sign of having any formal training beyond what her mother imparted to her at home.  The Home Economists who dominated mid-century cookery classes and nearly destroyed the fun in cooking through their insistence on "balanced meals" that included horrors like white sauce made with flour and Crisco, "salad" that consisted of popcorn sprinkled on sliced bananas, or what the advertisements called "friendly little boxes of Wheatena" with fruit in the morning had little to no effect on Mum.  Her food may have been plain but it was always perfectly seasoned and tasty, and if anyone tried to tell her about those home economist specialties called "casseroles" or "gelatin molds," she certainly never paid attention.

Truth be told, the only advice about quoting she ever quoted to me was Grandma's statement that "a colorful meal is a healthy meal," and of course modern nutritional research confirms that by and large, having a lots of fresh vegetables on your plate is a terrific idea.  This Mum did as long as she was physically and mentally capable of cooking, which is why I grew up blissfully ignorant of such mutations of home cooking as Perfection Salad, Hamburger Helper, and Tuna Casserole with Potato Chips.  The closest she ever came was the memorable day Betty talked her into making Lady Bird Johnson's Favorite Dessert, and thank God it never happened again.

Tonight I bring you two books that would have given my grandmother fits, let alone my long-suffering mother.  One very likely would have ended up shoved into the potbellied stove that occupied one corner of the dining room at the Farm, while the other would have had Mum rolling her eyes and saying something along the lines of "Kid, if you want to make this, be my guest but please don't tell your aunt":

Miss Minerva's Cook Book:  De Way to a Man's Heart, by Emma Speed Sampson - Emma Speed Sampson is all but unknown today despite a long and successful career churning out forgettable children's series fiction.  There's a reason for this; her best remembered pseudonym, Edith van Dyne, was first used by the far superior L. Frank Baum for his Aunt Jane's Nieces books, while her most popular series, the Miss Minerva books, is - how can I put this? - not suitable for modern audiences.

Hoo boy, is it not suitable for modern audiences.  Or, to be completely honest, any audience, including the tots who were its intended target back in those allegedly more innocent days.  For the Miss Minerva books were, and my hand to God I am not making this up, a series about a white spinster and her kindly black mammy, "Aunt Cindy," whose dialogue was written entirely in what Emma Speed Sampson thought was black rural dialect.  These cringe-inducing books were sequels to an equally horrendous (but heartwarming!) original by Frances Boyd Calhoun.  Calhoun's book, Miss Minerva and William Green Hill, was so popular that when Calhoun was inconsiderate enough to die before writing a sequel, Emma Speed Sampson was hired to continue the fun.  

Miss Minerva's Cook Book, which is now a rare collectible, not only included recipe after recipe in what I can only describe as "Mammyspeak," it was illustrated by equally cringe-inducing drawings that showed "Aunt Cindy" in full plantation house servant mode, complete with head scarf, apron, and a face that is nothing more than a jet black oval, white eyes, and a big red mouth.

As for Miss Minerva's Cook Book:  De Way to a Man's Heart, it is nothing less than a collection of Emma Speed Sampson's favorite down-home recipes and cooking tips, all told via the persona of Aunt Cindy.  Evidently the author was an accomplished cook, for as she put it in the introduction:

"Sometimes I come out of the kitchen. When I do I spend part of my time censoring motion pictures (?) part of it writing reviews of pictures (presumably not ones she'd censored), part of it writing juvenile fiction for old and young alike, part of it writing recipes in Negro dialect . . ."
And write recipes in Negro dialect she did, everything from peppers stuffed with goose liver (ew) to Abe Lincoln Toast (!!) to Calf Brains (EWWW).  Aunt Cindy describes the recipes and her cooking techniques in cheery language that includes gems like
"oyschters air moughty good animules if'n you treat 'em kindly"

Presumably before they're shucked, cooked, and eaten.

“Brains make a moughty good dish no matter whether you fry ‘em or cream ‘em, but nobody need git the notion that fried brains air safe victuals fer squeamy stomicks kase I done see too many folks a huntin’ on the kitchen shelf fer sody after havin’ over indulged in calf brains fried.”
Cookin’ sossage this-a-way air moughty tasty.  Looks like it kinder takes the ondergestablesness ‘way from the ‘po’k.  Te braid crumbs lightens it up an’ the chopped apple adds a flavor that s’prises folks.

No, honey, you don’t need no grease in a skillet whar you air cookin’ sossage.  Gawd done furnished hawgs with all the grease they needs.  You gonter fin’ plenty er grease lef’ in yo’ skillet what done oozed outer yo’ sossages.  Save them drippin’s fer future use.  I mos’ as soon th’ow away my Bible as my drippin’s.  Both er them air a ever present blessin’ in time er need.

I got nothin'.
Fried chicken air sumpin' it air hard ter larn a new cook ter do. It air easier ter fry greasy than not an' the cook what dishes up greasy fried chicken oughter go out an' wuck in the fiel' whar she b'longs.
You knew this was coming.  You just knew it.

The entire book is written like that, and gentle readers, if you can manage more than a page or two without your eyeballs hemorrhaging, you're a better human than I am, Gunga Din.  It's enough to make one wish for a  mashup of this book with The Help so that Miss Minerva can get a taste of that infamous "chocolate pie" that caused so much trouble while Aunt Cindy joins the NAACP and files a lawsuit for back wages against Miss Minerva while yelling something like, "Y'all wan' Abe Lincoln Toast?  Well, HAVE SOME!" and waving a po'k greased griddle like a weapon.  

Wouldn't that be delicious?

The Star Wars Cookbook: Wookie Cookies and Other Galactic Recipes, by Robin Davis and Lara Starr -  A while back I wrote a diary about the one bit of Star Wars memorabilia that is so terrible that George Lucas has never allowed it to be rebroadcast, re-released, or re-anything elsed, the Star Wars Holiday Special.  This wildly incoherent variety show, which was supposedly the chronicle of a typical Wookiee "Life Day" celebration starring Chewbacca, his wife Malla, Jefferson Starship, Bea Arthur, a contractually obligated and extremely embarrassed Harrison Ford, and Chewie and Malla's massively unappealing son Lumpy, included a scene where Oscar-winner Art Carney shows up, says hello, and asks Malla if she has any of her "delicious Wookiee Ookiees." It's never quite explained just what a Wookiee Ookiee is, but from context it seems to be some sort of holiday treat, probably similar to a plain ol' terrestrial cookie.

This supposition is borne out by the following passage from this astonishing cookbook that seems to be aimed at children, geeks with the mentality of children, or possibly the children of geeks:

"Consider, young Jedi: Why bake a plain old cookie when you can bake a super-Chewie Wookiee Cookie?"
Consider that, my friends.  Mull it over.  Then repeat it aloud:
"Consider, young Jedi: Why bake a plain old cookie when you can bake a super-Chewie Wookiee Cookie?"
A super.  Chewie.  Wookiee.  Cookiee.

And that's not all.  Robin Davis and Lara Starr (and is there a more appropriate name for the co-author of a Star Wars book?) include other culinary delights like "Boba Fett-ucine" (with broccoli, so it's healthy!), "Princess Leia Danish Dos" (shaped like her hair, so it's fun!), and "C-3PO Pancakes" (flatter than Anthony Daniels' hair after a day in the suit, so it's perfect for butter and syrup!).  And since kids are notoriously messy, and maybe just maybe perhaps aren't able to, y'know, cook from scratch the way my mother did when she was TWELVE, for crying out loud why does everything have to be dumbed down?????, the book includes plenty of "recipes" with commercially available ingredients like frozen pizza dough and that true galactic treat, Kit-Kats.  It's even spiral-bound, with spill-proof, wipeable pages, so it's absolutely perfect for use in an actual kitchen when Mom is sick and needs a taste of those delicious Wookiee [C]Ookies to make it all better.

Isn't that a perfect gift for the young (or not so young) Star Wars fan in the house?  Or the college-age geek who has trouble boiling the water for what John Scalzi has dubbed "The Mandatory Top Ramen Diet"?  Don't you just want to order your own copy from the ThinkGeek catalogue, along with some bacon-flavored mayonnaise and ice cubes shaped like Han Solo embedded in carbonite?

Best of all, and oh you Star Wars fen are just going to LOVE LOVE LOVE this - the entire book is illustrated with action figures!

That's right, good gentles all: instead of using line drawings, or stills from the movies, Davis and Starr had a man named, no lie, Frankie Frankeny, photograph tiny Star Wars action figures standing next to the food.

Yes.  Really.

It starts on the cover, which depicts Chewbacca standing as nobly as an action figure can next to a stack of his own cookies.  Other, increasingly surreal, photos, include such gems as Princess Leia defending a heap of cinnamon rolls, Greedo about to steal a burrito, Han-Burgers, and Jabba the Hutt holding court atop a pile of green Jell-O.

Needless to say, Skywalker-loving kids and their weary parents made this a bestseller, to the point that two years later there was a follow up entitled The Star Wars Cookbook II:  Darth Malt and More Galactic Recipes, by Frankeny and another collaborator.  This book concentrated on the characters from The Phantom Menace, fortunately with as little Jar-Jar Binks as the contract would allow.  There's even a third volume, this one a selection of baked goods from the first book, that comes complete with Yoda, R2-D2, and Darth Vader-shaped cookie cutters.  

So geeks and kid geeks all, go into the kitchen, drag the pizza dough out of the freezer, and cue up the Imperial March on the boombox!  Can life possibly be any better than this?


Do any of you have a favorite recipe from years past?  A Star Wars cookbook?  A copy of Miss Minerva's Horribly Racist Adventures kept in a sealed vault in your basement?  Would you admit it if you did?  This diary is a safe space, so gather 'round the fire pit and share....


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Originally posted to Readers and Book Lovers on Sat Aug 17, 2013 at 06:00 PM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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