Memories Of Hearts And Flour

Published 3:48 pm Thursday, February 14, 2013

Betty Crocker and the Pillsbury Dough Boy might not have crossed paths during their culinary careers, but they shared a similar view.

“Nothin' says lovin' like somethin' from the oven,” Dough Boy giggled in a popular commercial of the past.

A bit more refined, Betty echoed a similar sentiment, one often repeated by my grandmother: “The way to a man's heart is his stomach!”

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While my grandmother was born a half century before Betty Crocker made her debut in 1921, she firmly believed that a homemaker, or housewife as they were called then, was only as good as her baking powder biscuits. Any cook worth her salt, in other words, had better be salting away some good recipes.

Apparently I inherited this recipe-collecting gene. A loose-leaf binder on my kitchen shelf overflows with recipes I've clipped from magazines or jotted down on the backs of envelopes (even, I hate to admit, church bulletins).

The most prized recipes in my book, however, are those yellowed with age and spattered with the batter of memorable days in the kitchens. These recipes are like love letters of the past, their stories written in hearts and flour.

Flour was, in fact, a main ingredient in my memories of baking day in my grandmother's kitchen. The built-in flour bin in the Hoosier cabinet she used to bake pies or roll out biscuits fascinated me. I loved to turn the handle and watch flour sift like snowflakes into her mixing bowl.

After the baking was done, my grandmother set her best china cups on the table, and we would have tea. Actually, she would have tea and I had a cup of hot water (caffeine was not for youngsters in those days).

Few of my grandmother's recipes were ever written out – she kept them all in her head. It was, I suppose, a practical move. Women of that era often had to pack their belongings into a covered wagon on short notice and move. My grandmother, along with her mother and grandmother, made such a trek in the late 1890s.

Keeping recipes “in your head,” I might add, is a useful skill. To this day, I can whip up my grandmother's baking powder biscuits without benefit of a recipe. Each time I do, I feel my grandmother's encouraging presence.

When my mother passed away in the late 1990s, my sister and I almost overlooked the loose-leaf binder on the shelf at the retirement home. Afflicted by Alzheimer's, my mother hadn't cooked in years, but I suppose her recipe collection was something she couldn't bear to leave behind.

Coming of age in the decade before the Great Depression, my mother had a different recipe collection. Her recipes, clipped from newspaper and magazine pages, were more exotic – recipes I know she never made.

I didn't understand her selections until I went through more scrapbooks. My mother, it seemed, was a master scrap booker long before it came into vogue. The pages she compiled featured clippings of social events of the 1920s. When my mother left her socialite status behind a few years later to become a young farm wife she traded galas for gardening and soirees for stay-at-home-mom status. I'm sure the recipes she painstakingly pasted in her book brought a needed touch of glamour to her life.

Insight often comes after the fact. My mother's recipe book, sitting on my shelf now, serves as a reminder of that fact.

Another recipe in my collection brings more contemporary memories. Diane Herndon's Tomato Soup recipe is one of my favorites, and like the rest, it has a story.

I joined the Herald news staff a week before my birthday in 1993. A few days later on my birthday (which I thought no one knew about) Diane called me into the dark room where she had hidden my surprise – a homemade two-layer birthday cake. Diane and I made the “hearts and flour” connection right off the bat.

Although Diane was the only one of us who held a journalism degree, she worked part time in the dark room. Diane had been a dialysis patient for almost two decades and had to leave work every other day at 10:30 to go to dialysis.

Despite her health issues, Diane loved to garden and raised tomatoes every summer so she could go to the cannery and make tomato soup. While she couldn't enjoy it herself (too much potassium) she liked to give it away throughout the year. When someone was ill or just having a bad day, Diane would be there with a can of her soup.

She wrote out the recipe for me one summer several years before she died. On the back she jotted this note: “call me anytime if you have a question.”

I wish I could pick up that phone because I do have a question. Are there tomatoes in heaven? I'd be willing to bet that even the angels would stand in line for a bowl of Diane's soup.

Every summer when I make tomato soup I see Diane's face and smile of approval. Yes, I continue to share it like she did – and I make sure the recipient knows the story behind it.

Recipes, like so many things, really are a link to the past, and like my grandmother said, the way to the heart.

Sometimes it's as simple as sharing a bowl of soup.