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Handwritten recipes from the 1940s to the 1960s featured readily available ingredients.

In praise of humble meals

Cooking as an act of independence and thrift

~

By Kimberly Palmiero


The cards are faded and splattered with cake batter, relics of the food histories of a group of women who lived in a small Pennsylvania town.

They worked at a zipper company, at the local courthouse, as a crossing guard, as a hairstylist, and at the electric company. Rose, Vincenza, Liz, Madeline, and Mary grew much of what they ate growing up during the Great Depression. They rarely ate out. They cooked as a reflexive act of necessity and caring. 

“We were poor but we didn’t know it,” Rose would frequently say. 

As we consider how deprived we may feel amid a pandemic and an economic recession, we might also consider that simple home cooking itself can be an act of independence — and an expression of caring and thrift, plus an occasion for the sort of gratitude that’s worth getting back to. 

We all cannot have shallots and Plugra (a premium, European-style butter) delivered to our doors. Few among us may have the luxury of time or the desire to make pate au choux (pastry dough) or prinsesstårta (sponge cake, pastry cream, jam, and whipped cream, draped with marzipan).

But what we can do is choose what we eat, for the most part; make an effort to plant something; and support local food producers. 

We also can cook with intention, using simply what we have and choosing the freshest ingredients that have passed through the fewest hands in the least amount of time possible. Doing so is both difficult and simple: Use what you have, not what you don’t. 

Has there ever been a better time to make use of what we have?

Find that tradition in classic cookbooks and culinary histories by the great Edna Lewis (“The Taste of Country Cooking”) and Marion Cunningham (“The Fannie Farmer Cookbook”). Lewis helped define Southern cooking for a mass audience; Cunningham was a home cook who ascended to work with American food icon James Beard and encouraged people to prepare simple meals. 

Michael Pollan’s bestselling “In Defense of Food” from 2008 advocates a remarkably simple approach to cooking for improved health and a better planet. Pick up Mark Kurlansky’s “The Food of a Younger Land” to read more about regional cooking and farm-to-table as not a trend, but a necessity. 

The author's grandmother, Rose Palmiero, far right, with friends, in Meadville, a small Pennsylvania town south of Erie.

 

Many may mourn the past days of eating out at restaurants; the pandemic will change how we interact with restaurants and with purchasing food in general. The industry publication QSR predicts that a restaurant’s greatest competition will be a move toward home cooking. 

My extended family owned restaurants that I grew up working in during the 1980s. Yet even as I watched people happily gather for a meal someone else had prepared for them, I was aware that not everyone could afford to do so, and often the joy was in who they were with, not what they ate.

In my family, everyone grew produce and prepared food — those were respected skills of necessity and independence. 

We were not farmers, but our small yard was taken over by whatever we could plant on it. In the summer, the centerpiece of dinner was whatever was ready to pick. I would be summoned to pick zucchini as my grandmother heated oil in the skillet and my grandfather waited with a knife. 

Eat zucchini for 30 days straight and you get really creative. And before the zucchini, there were zucchini blossoms, stuffed and pan-fried. 

Transitions, happy or sad, were occasions to cook for people: Births, deaths, and illnesses prompted an explosion of caring in the form of several days’ worth of meals. To cook from a box would have been regarded as both a waste of money and an insult to the person you were cooking for. Cooking spoke through its own language of caring.

Most of the time, the playbook for what you cooked belonged to someone else first — or it was something you created to use what was on hand.

I learned this as I watched my grandmother and her friends swap recipes like kids once traded baseball cards. Most were written on notecards. Others were hastily shared on the back of an electric bill, or even on a blank voting certification card. 

My father wrote nothing down but taught me how to catch fish (perch and walleye) from freshwater lakes to cook a meal in less than two hours.  He showed me how to pick dandelion greens in the spring for salad (hint: go to a field, definitely not a yard), and how to gather loads of elderberries in the woods to make wine. 

He showed me a simple meal can come from fresh-picked, sliced wild mushrooms sauteed in butter — provided you know how to avoid the poisonous types.

These are things that cost virtually nothing and require few special skills. And these are things which we still can do now 

When the ladies died, all I asked for was their recipes. Those recipes probably would not have won awards. But what they cooked reminded them of where they came from and, getting by together, and making the most of what they had available.

Kimberly Palmiero is CEO & Editor-in-Chief of Postindustrial Media.

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