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Learning to Cook With My Mother in the 1960s: My Experience

As a baby boomer, Denise and millions of others are becoming senior citizens. She explores what it means to be over 60 today.

Making an apple pie

Making an apple pie

My Generation of Women

I am lucky to be a member of a generation that took great pride in teaching the girls of the family to cook, clean, and keep a home. This always seemed like elementary education to me. From even before the time I was tall enough to see into the sink, I was underfoot and wanting to help in the kitchen. My mother kept telling me I had to be tall enough to reach the sink to “help” her. I was pretty bummed that I was a short kid so I found a box and dropped it at the sink and climbed up on it. Mom had to laugh and handed me the potato peeler. That was my first chore in the kitchen. I was chief potato peeler for a year or more in a family who had potatoes at almost every meal: fried, boiled, mashed, French fried, disc fried, cubed fried, mostly fried.

Later, Mom showed me how to read a recipe and turned me loose with the oven as my best friend. I started with biscuits. For my UK friends, that’s a scone-type recipe without any frosting. Dad loved my biscuits with gravy and requested them often. This praise is all the encouragement I needed to bake more pies, cakes, bread, cookies, etc.

Mom to the left, me squinting in the middle and my sister next to me at a taco feed/swim party.

Mom to the left, me squinting in the middle and my sister next to me at a taco feed/swim party.

Grandma’s Taco Feeds

Okay, my family isn’t even related to any Mexicans that we know of, but we do love our tacos. Sometime in the 1960s, my aunt got a taco recipe and showed my mother’s mother how to make it. The rest became a family tradition.

Each summer, the family came en mass to Grandma’s house for swimming and a taco feed. The women would gather in the kitchen and divide up the duties. Some aunt would peel and chop onions (bowls and bowls of onions), some aunt would shred lettuce, someone would grate blocks of cheddar cheese. My mom would cut up the tomatoes and I helped sometimes when the women didn’t feel it was too crowded.

Grandma was in charge of cooking up the taco meat and adding the seasonings. Then in an assembly line, the tortillas were fried, folded, loaded, and served. Platters and platters of tacos would arrive onto the tables while empty ones returned to the kitchen for loading. We sometimes had as many as 60 relatives and would make hundreds of tacos.

These taco feeds were a time of great joy and fond memories. As each of the senior members of the family passed it became harder and harder for me to come to a taco feed and feel the same joy. The event had to be moved to a new location when the city seized my grandparent’s home in eminent domain to make room for a new high school. Then when my grandparents both passed, my mother hosted it for a while but when my dad passed and mom moved to a smaller house it wasn’t practical anymore. Then my mother’s sister made room for the taco feed to happen at her home, which was substantially smaller than my grandparent’s home but doable. As she got older, she gave up her home and moved in with her son. This last summer, a cousin called members of the family and told of her coming visit and requested a taco feed. My sister hosted it but I couldn’t bring myself to come. I have my own little taco feeds at home but it will never be the same. Still, the memories are wonderful.

Cooking with kids is not just about ingredients, recipes, and cooking. It's about harnessing imagination, empowerment, and creativity.

— Guy Fieri

Canned fruit at the fair

Canned fruit at the fair

Food Preservation

I learned not only cooking and baking from my mother and grandmother but also canning and preservation. We come from a long line of farmers—and harvest time means canning time. It was almost a party to rival a taco feed. I never looked forward to it as much though.

Each year as we got fruit by the box loads, the women were all called together to join Grandma for a canning day. It meant that all the empty canning jars had to be carted up from the basement (usually by me and my sisters), taken to the bathroom (because the kitchen was busy with food preparation), and scrubbed with hot, soapy water in the bathtub. First, I hated this job because it was backbreaking. Second, I hated that I was alone in the bathroom while all the conversation when on in the kitchen. When the jars were finally clean and brought to the kitchen, I could help with the peeling, coring, cutting, dicing, or slicing of fruit, or packing the jars.

Root cellar pantry

Root cellar pantry

Canning Process

In the canning process, the quart jars (even the clean ones I washed) had to be sterilized in boiling water. With tongs, they were retrieved from the boiling water and immediately packed with the prepared fruit. Then the hot liquid (sugared water or just water) was poured into the jar to within half an inch of the rim, and the hot lid and ring were synched down. Then the jar had to be put into a large pot with six other jars and boiled for 10 minutes. This was usually for peaches, apples, apricots, and even whole tomatoes. Once they were removed from the hot bath, they were placed on a towel on the table to cool and the lids would compress causing a seal in the jar. Now the fruit was good for the next few years unless the seal was broken. I loved the sound of the lids as they sealed. It made a musical “foomp” or “pop” sound. It meant all the hard work was successful.

We canned hundreds of quarts of fruit every summer, ready for peach cobblers or apple pies all winter. As you can guess, this was an all-day event and meant standing for hours in front of the sink and stove in a very humid kitchen.

Pig Latin in the Kitchen

If you come from a family like mine you probably heard about Pig Latin. Little people have big ears, and I certainly was a quiet listening type. I loved being in the kitchen to hear all the talk and the adult women didn’t really want me to hear ALL the talk so they would talk in Pig Latin. At first, it was just gibberish to me, but I was interested because it seemed to be something that was of importance. If you don’t want me to hear it, it has to be pretty important. It took a while but eventually, I worked out a word or two. Once I had deciphered one or two, I cracked the code and could understand it all. That’s when they couldn’t use the Pig Latin anymore.

American biscuits and gravy

American biscuits and gravy

When men reach their sixties and retire, they go to pieces. Women go right on cooking.

— Gail Sheehy

Cutting my sweet rolls

Cutting my sweet rolls

Final Thoughts

During this pandemic, so many dear friends have approached me via email and social media asking me to give them tips on baking. Staying home has introduced women to the kitchen again. Surely, a pandemic isn’t what was needed to pass cooking skills onto the next generation—or was it? What do you think?