When I originally conceived of the idea of this blog, I had intended it to be rather personal—an exploration of all things culinary, of course, but also of a variety of other topics I’ve been thinking about, such as my career change, the passing of my parents, the experience of cancer, and the joys (!!?) of middle age. I’d wanted The Braless Gourmet to be a place where I could appreciate the good things in life—food, drink, friends & family—while also contemplating change, loss and mortality. As a character in Don Quixote states, “all sorrows are less with bread.” Culinary delights can indeed offset life’s woes, if one is inclined to take pleasure in the small things, and, of course, if one is fortunate enough to have ready access to bread. At any rate, I hope you will indulge me a bit as I share a little of my personal history.
I’ll begin with a little reflection on how I came to be a competent home cook—a story that has everything to do with my mom. I grew up in western Colorado during the 1970s, but mom was really a 1950s kind of mom. She actually had been a ‘50s mom to my one and only sibling, Kenny, who was born twenty years before me in 1948.
My mom, dad and brother moved to Colorado from Connecticut before I was born, but my family has a long, long history in Connecticut. My mom’s side descended directly from the Mayflower folks, from one of the Brewster families, and my dad’s side fought in the American War for Independence. Some 350 years after the Mayflower folks arrived and began appropriating the cuisines and stealing the lands of the indigenous peoples of the eastern seaboard, Mom graduated in 1947 from the Norwich Free Academy in Norwich, Connecticut, which even today is a highly regarded public high school. During the 1940s when home economics was still considered de rigueur for girls, mom completed four years of culinary training at the NFA. For the rest of her life, she made every meal from scratch, had supper on the table at 5:15 when dad got home from work, and baked delicious pies, cakes and cookies. Early in their marriage, my demand-O dad expected a slice of cake in his lunch and a pie for his evening dessert. Mom was a baking machine!!
By the time I was born, dad had relaxed his dessert demands, but his sweet tooth—which he always denied having!—still kept mom busy. She baked regularly even after I left for college, in addition to doing all of her general cooking. Mom’s skills inspired me even as a tot, because one of my earliest memories is when I was about four and I’d decided, while mom was giving a piano lesson in the living room, that I wanted to make cookies. Having seen her make cookies so many times, I must have been confident that I knew what to do, so alone in the kitchen, I tried to cream butter and sugar together. I don’t remember exactly what happened, but mom must’ve heard the mixer and come in to see what I was up to. She wasn’t too happy with my attempt, because she then had to figure out what to do with the mess I’d made.
But when I got older, she was very happy to teach me all about baking: she taught me how to make adjustments for high-altitude baking in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, how to measure flour properly, and how to whip egg whites into stiff (mountain?) peaks, with and without cream of tartar!
Today I have many of her tattered, well-used cookbooks, dotted with her notations as well as with decades-old splatters of vanilla and batter. The Silver White Cake recipe from Betty Crocker’s Picture Cookbook (McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1950) is marked, “Very good, 6-23-68”—three weeks after I was born. Even a squawking newborn couldn’t stop mom from baking!
My mom suffered from a fatal stroke in March 2017, at 87 years of age. Every day I think about how she would have loved The Braless Gourmet. Although she had a lot of trouble remembering things in the last year or so of her life, I know the name would have tickled her and she would have remembered it and told all of her friends. I hope she’s out there right now, giggling somewhere in the spirit world, enjoying a nice slice of cake. Perhaps in the other world, dad now has to bake for her!