One of the treasures I inherited from my mother is “The Settlement Cook Book,” a recipe collection that originated in Milwaukee where my mother had lived most of her life. The book was a standard for Midwestern home cooks just as the “Boston Cooking-School Cook Book,” better known as the Fannie Farmer cookbook, gave New Englanders basic instructions for what most people were eating a couple of generations ago. In my mother’s time, people generally owned only a few cookbooks, a basic all-purpose one, and several community cookbooks purchased as fundraisers for their local schools, churches or synagogues.
My mother’s “The Settlement Cookbook” was pretty tattered by the time I got it, held together by a rubber band because of a missing spine and some loose pages. But the book’s infirmities have only made it dearer to me, for it reflects its years of use in the hands of a capable cook. What I treasure most are my mother’s handwritten recipes tucked between the book’s pages, for they remind me of the dishes she liked and the flavors she was drawn to.
The disproportionate number of cake recipes recall her love of sweets, and the several handwritten recipes I find that use canned salmon tell me something not only about her taste for that ingredient, but about her era when canned goods played a central role in the lives of home cooks. I find too that remembering and thinking about past food preferences can bring back the essence of a person and a period just as vividly as staring at images in an old photograph album.
These reflections make me realize that nostalgia is very much in the air these days, what with all of the turmoil in the world and the economic problems we face here at home. No wonder we find comfort in a real or imagined past, when life seemed simpler and our goals more easily achieved. It also is not surprising that we find solace in eating old-fashioned dishes far removed from sous vide machines and liquid nitrogen dispensers. Not long after 9/11, a flurry of cookbooks all about comfort foods began to appear, a trend I thought was short-lived until I did a search and found that cookbooks about comfort foods continue to roll off the presses. Some are general books with still more macaroni and cheese recipes and variations on mashed potatoes. But we are also getting diet, vegan and gluten-free books, all with “comfort” in the title.
Traditional over trendy
I understand this, for I am noticing that my dinner menus are tangible responses to what is going on in my life. I worry that I haven’t yet dealt with my income tax; whether the squirrels will decimate my tomato patch again; or how well the Red Sox will do this year after last year’s end-of-season disaster. When I dwell on such concerns, I end up by cooking my favorite soup, a thick one full of soup meat, dried peas and beans and carrots, having no desire for such trendy ingredients as truffle oil or lemongrass. My preferred soup is the one I grew up with, the one my mother told me was my first solid food.
Other evidence for our current yearning for the past is the popularity of eating clubs where friends regularly get together to put on theme meals, often dipping into the past for their inspiration. The 50s is a particularly popular decade, for it is emblematic of a time when home cooking was filled with such popular and, yes, comforting dishes as meatloaf, oven-fried chicken, tuna casseroles and Jell-O molds. I once organized such an event, and people showed up with those dishes as well as with piles of brownies, butterscotch pudding and apple crisp, homey desserts that continue to be great favorites.
Another demonstration of our yearning for simpler times, it seems to me, is the popularity of farmers markets, not just during the growing season here in the Northeast, but during the winter as well. My local garden shop has introduced a winter market this year, with sellers offering fresh fish, root-cellar crops such as beautiful potatoes, onions and carrots. Not just this, but shoppers can also find bakers selling whole-grain breads, muffins and, best of all, chicken pot pies full of juicy chicken, a minimum of sauce, and encased in ethereal puff pastry. In strolling through the market, I was brought back to a time, before impersonal supermarkets, when customers got to know the people who sold them their food. And that we now are able to meet the people who actually grow and cook some of our food is all the better.
Salmon patties like mom used to make
Absent from the aisles of farmers markets is any sign of a canned vegetable and certainly no canned salmon so loved by my mother. (Her recipes had names like “Salmon Neptune” or “Salmon Patty Delight.”) I have, however, been noticing when looking through new cookbooks and recent food magazines that salmon patties are making a comeback, only now they are made from fresh fish and are called “salmon cakes” in the tradition of those expensive and upscale crab cakes that must be made with fresh crabmeat.
But I know an old-fashioned salmon patty when I see one. I am not ready to knock all of my mother’s canned salmon recipes, so I am offering one that is different from most others in that the patties, or rather the cakes, are not fried, as in most recipes, but baked. Try it.
Baked Salmon Cakes
Barbara Haber is a food historian and the former curator of books at Radcliffe’s Schlesinger Library at Harvard University where she built a major collection of cookbooks and other books related to food, and influenced the recognition of food history as a viable field of academic and professional study. She founded the Radcliffe Culinary Friends, which supported the library’s culinary collection and provided a forum for food writers from across the country to present their work to an appreciative audience. She also held monthly gatherings, called “First Monday,” where local chefs and writers came together to hear talks on timely food-related topics.
Barbara’s books include “From Hardtack to Home Fries: An Uncommon History of American Cooks and Meals” and “From Betty Crocker to Feminist Food Studies: Critical Perspectives on Women and Food,” which she co-edited. She has written numerous articles and reviews including “Home Cooking in the White House” published in “White House History.” She is currently working on a book about food and World War II in the Pacific tentatively called “Cooking in Captivity.”
She is a former director of the International Association of Culinary Professionals and currently serves on the awards committee and chairs the Who’s Who Committee of the James Beard Foundation. She is a frequent speaker on topics related to the history of food as well as popular food topics, and has appeared on television’s “The Today Show,” “Martha Stewart Living” and The Cooking Channel. Barbara was elected to the James Beard Foundation’s “Who’s Who’s in Food and Beverages” and received the M.F.K. Fisher Award from Les Dames d’Escofier.
Photos, from top:
Canned salmon and “The Settlement Cook Book.”
Baked salmon cakes.
Credits: Barbara Haber