The warm weather has finally arrived in my neck of the woods and for some reason the change of season, any season, puts me in a cleaning mood. Depressing isn't it, this is my road to fun?
Well, this weekend, looking for a good time, I decided that I'd had just about enough of my terribly disorganized pantry and so I started cleaning out and cleaning up that messy closet.
Once the food shelves were tidied up, I began to work my way through a mysterious pile of papers tucked into the back corner of the top shelf. Most of them were recipes, torn from magazines in the days before Pinterest, recipes that I never made...and will never make, so I tossed them. The whole pile was garbage.
...except for this sweet little cookbook that I must have stashed away and forgotten about for years. It stopped me in my tracks.
That happens to me sometimes. I start cleaning things out, come across something precious from my childhood and bam, all of my focus is gone. I get caught up in the memories of lovely long agos and it becomes almost impossible to reel me back in to complete the task at hand. This day was no different. I sat on the kitchen floor, among expired food cartons and stale chips, turning the yellowed pages and suddenly, I was six or eight again, dreaming about all the recipes I was going to make for my family. I was going to be a phenomenal cook.
Apparently, this was not a premonition.
The book was published in 1974 by the makers of Carnation Evaporated Milk. It was filled with breakfast, lunch, dinner and snack recipes and, of course, just about every one of them called for, you guessed it, evaporated milk.
According to the book, it was essential.
I think I had to send in a few labels to get my treasure, but when it showed up, I was hooked.
It was so different than any book I'd ever seen. It was the Fun To Cook Book and it was fabulous. It was basically a story about a little girl named Margie Blake who was learning to cook. There was a letter from her, obviously to me, in the front and then lessons on safety and how to be a good hostess peppered in between the recipes. I must have read that book every single night for a year. I had that sucker memorized from cover to cover. I couldn't get enough, which is ironic, because today, I hate to cook.
Back then, however, I couldn't wait to get my hands dirty in the kitchen. I wanted to make every dish in that book, including the Grapefruit Surprise. The surprise was that she used a grapefruit knife. It really wasn't that surprising.
Anyway, I think the sweetest memory I have of this book has to do with my dad.
There's a chapter about being ready to cook dinner by yourself and I wanted to do that so badly, I remember bugging my mom for weeks. She finally agreed and we settled on the meatloaf recipe ~ page 21. Now, you have to remember that this was the early 70's and my mom was born in the 1930's. A man was the king of his castle and dinner was essentially prepared for HIM.
So I wasn't really making dinner for the family, I was making it for my dad. I worked very hard on that silly meatloaf, I followed Margie Blake's recipe to a T and I was so proud when it came out of the oven. I placed it on the table in front of my dad and waited for his approval with baited breath. I can still picture myself standing in our orange countered kitchen with my tiny apron on, listening to my brother and sisters make fun of my lopsided little meatloaf.
I have no idea if that lump of ground meat (that I made without Carnation Evaporated Milk mind you) was actually good or bad, but to his credit, my dad made it seem like it was the best thing he'd ever tasted.
It is one of the most precious memories I have of my father. In a house with four kids and a bunch of pets, time alone with my dad was almost nonexistent, but for that moment, at that crowded table, in that avocado accented room, it was just him and me...and I was so proud.
A few years later he would be gone and that stupid meatloaf memory would become vitally important to me. He would never see me move on from elementary school to junior high. He would never see me graduate high school, college ~ the first in my family ~ or obtain my Master's Degree. He was not there when I made the kickline team or won the Most Outstanding Senior in Art Award. He would not be there for so many things I accomplished as I grew up without him, but he was there for the meatloaf and so that silly little book became the embodiment of everything I missed about my dad and even though I hated to cook as I grew, I kept it, because it kept him close to me.
Every few years it falls out of whatever safe space I have tucked it into and I get lost in those chop meat memories all over again. Invariably, I take a time out from my cleaning fun, to flip through the faded pages and visit with Margie Blake and my dad for just a bit, recalling sweet times and promising recipes, all the while wondering...
...what exactly is evaporated milk and why is it necessary, because, honestly, after almost forty years, I still don't really know.
Update: It seems that a lot people grew up with this book. I was very curious just how long it was in publication, so I contacted Nestle, the makers of Carnation Evaporated Milk and publisher of the book. Here is their response:
The first edition of the Fun to Cook Book was printed in 1955. The last edition of the Fun to Cook Book was printed in 1982.