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Although my mother never really owned up to it, she was a good cook.
I think she viewed the preparation of food mostly as a necessity. She’d been doing it since she was a little girl, when her job growing up on a farm in northern Rhode Island was to bake the cake, every day a new one, as part of the larder that would feed her parents, her eight siblings and whoever else needed a meal.
Once in charge of her own home, she approached feeding my dad, my four brothers and I as both an intellectual and creative challenge. As a young mother, she befriended an Italian neighbor who taught her to make spaghetti and meatballs. She clipped recipes from newspapers, organizing them on the sticky pages of photo albums. Her grocery shopping mission was always to get the most she could at the least cost, out of necessity surely but also I think to make it more interesting. In partnership with my dad, she used and preserved vegetables from the garden and although she cooked meat at every meal, she often said she’d be quite content surviving on crookneck summer squash, fresh Swiss chard and stewed fresh tomatoes.
But it wasn’t her technique or her creative flair that made her food exceptional. It was that she and my father made having a meal together an integral part of being a family. Even long after my older brothers and I had moved out, Sunday dinners – there must have been thousands of them – regularly brought us all back together again, at my parents’ table.
And so I guess it makes sense that we all turned out to be cooks. The idea of preparing food as a creative outlet, as an expression of love and as a manifestation of home, it ended up in our DNA.
My parents are gone now, my dad, too early, and my mom in 2010. We lost one of my brothers in 1988, and another, my brother Brian, suddenly, just last month.
After my mom had given up the role, Brian was the one who took on Thanksgiving. He made my mother’s stuffing, in the pan not in the bird. He mashed the turnips with the carrots, just like my father’s mother used to do. And like my parents, it meant so much to him that we would come, old faces together with new ones, the turkey, the gravy, the mashed potatoes loaded with butter - for better or for worse - connecting us to him and to each other in some kind of family communion.
As to be expected, his death has shifted my equilibrium. I didn’t realize how often I thought of him, how embedded he is in my smallest, most routines, in what I chose to post on Facebook or Twitter, knowing what would elicit his response; in what I was reading or hearing and whether he’d be interested, too; and in what I was cooking, what new recipe I’d tried or what old one I’d recreated and what memories it evoked.
Although I know for certain he will, it’s too soon for me to know how Brian will remain in my life, how his intelligence and humor, his wit and his gentle, kind heart will remain at my family table. But I already do know that when I need him, I just might find him the kitchen.
And so, in honor of my brother, I give you one of his childhood favorites, Wacky Cake.
I remember watching in fascination as my mother prepared this remarkable cake, which is rich and chocolatey despite the fact that it’s made without eggs, butter or milk. I recall her saying that it was part of her childhood repertoire on the farm, which would bring the recipe back to the 1930s and the Depression, but a bit of research reveals that some trace the recipe to World War II rationing, and the scarcity of milk and eggs.
Regardless, it’s delicious. I like this dense, moist cake served plain, on a napkin, to be eaten without a fork. My mom often served it with a flurry of powdered sugar on top and my husband enjoys it smeared with peanut butter, right out of the jar. He’s right, it’s so good.
I think that with peanut butter frosting, it just might taste like a homemade Funny Bone, and what’s not to like about that?
1½ cups flour
1 cup sugar
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
3 teaspoons cocoa
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 tablespoon vinegar
5 tablespoons oil
1 cup water
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Sift dry ingredients into a greased, 8-inch square baking pan.
Make three indentations and add the vanilla to one, the vinegar to another and the oil to the third. Mix, adding the water – do not beat.
Bake for 20 to 25 minutes at 350 degrees. Cool in the pan.
Peanut Butter Frosting
½ cup peanut butter
5 tablespoons softened butter
1 cup confectioner’s sugar
1-3 tablespoons milk
Beat together the peanut butter, butter and confectioner’s suger, adding the milk until you achieve your desired consistency.
Jill Blanchette works at night at The Day. Share recipes and comments with her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Anita Steendam, who once shared her recipe for Dutch pea soup with The Day’s readers, recently extended an invitation to sample another Dutch delicacy, filled speculaas, a kind of spiced, soft, shortbread cookie-bar