In my admittedly limited baking experience, I have found that despite the vast amount of recipes available by various cookbooks, recipe blogs, and the Internet in general I will inevitably have the most success making something from the timeworn Women’s Institute cookbook given to me by my mother when I was about sixteen. I think it was an attempt on her part to interest me in cooking, as well as impart a bit of a lesson in family history. Both grandmothers, two aunts and at least one great aunt had their recipes included there, as well as a host of others from names I’d heard many times throughout my life. It’s like a culinary version of a time capsule.
Although that first attempt failed miserably – I was far more interested in boys and bands at that age to want anything to do with country kitchen life – I did keep the book with me. It even moved across an ocean and back. I would bust it out whenever I had a hankering for my grandma’s oatmeal cookies or banana muffins, then back to the bookshelf it would go. But it wasn’t until my mother passed away last November that it has been getting any regular use at all.
There are a number of contributing factors, of course, but mostly it’s because baking has become a form of therapy. And using that cookbook in particular serves as a link between me and my mother, as well as those women who have gone before her. Every now and then it hits me, that connection, and then the tears will start to flow. Like today, for example.
I had picked up a bunch of rhubarb and a quart of strawberries from the farmer’s market because they looked so inviting. I’ve never attempted to make anything with rhubarb before – the last time I think I baked a pie it was pumpkin, using the canned variety. I’ve never really been down with anything too labour-intensive, and hulling berries and cutting rhubarb stalks into one inch pieces would definitely fall into that category. But for some reason, today I was really looking forward to it. There is a certain zen-like quality to the repetitive action of cutting the fruit and tipping it into a bowl to be blended with some sugar and spread onto an oatmeal crust. Until it hit me – the last time I would have had strawberries and rhubarb together in a room would have been when I was a teenager, living at home with my parents. I would have been watching my mother slice up the berries, slapping my hand as I stole some to eat. She would often send me out back for more of the rhubarb that grew wild at the edge of the field our house was surrounded by, since she would underestimate how much she needed. When I would return, there would usually be a small bowl of cut-up berries set aside for me; no sugar, just the way I liked them.
Cue the tears. God, I wish she was still here.
I’d like her to see that I did learn something after all, that even after all those years of resisting anything to do with the kitchen that everything she’d tried to teach me had somehow sunk in anyway. That I was finally somewhat proud of my rural roots, proud enough to pass on one of my grandmother’s recipes to a co-worker looking to make the perfect pecan pie. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my newfound hobby, it’s that you can’t go wrong with a Women’s Institute or church group recipe. And I come from a long line of both.
I made this strawberry rhubarb crumble pie by using this recipe. It’s a name that I know I’ve heard but cannot place. If Mom were here, she would no doubt tell me not only who Marilyn Ismond was but where she lived, who she went to school with, and who else she is related to in the book.