“Mom, what is that?” Abbott asked, looking dubiously at the greenish-brownish lumpy gnarled object in our shopping cart. “It’s celeriac,” I said. “Did you mean for it to be in our cart?” he asked, politely, with a tentative expression on his face. I replied, “It’s for the lamb stew I’m going to make. You’ve eaten it in things before; things you’ve liked.” He gave me a weak smile. Our cashier changed the subject, asking if we’d done anything fun over the weekend. As I paused to think about it, Abbott grinned and said, “I’ve done some reading!” We continued talking about books as we stepped outside into the March sunshine. I loaded the trunk with the bags containing the celeriac, limes I’d taught him how to choose (“the skins should be thin!”), and an assortment of dairy, produce, grains and protein to keep a family of four going for a few days. I’m glad I’ll be sending Abbott out into his future life knowing a celeriac the next time he stares one in the face.
Abbott had already eaten a sandwich, and Cal and Alexi weren’t home from Cal’s hockey game, yet, so I ate lunch alone, with a book, as I usually eat my lunch during the week. I’ve been reading one of my grandmother’s old cookbooks when I eat, the Watkins Cook Book. The dark blue cloth binding is faded, and the pages are the deep yellow of time. Inside the cover is an inscription in my grandmother’s handwriting. “Mama gave me this cookbook about 1936 or 37 – Christmas.” I couldn’t find a copyright date in it, but when I checked online, it appears I have the version that was published in 1938. It’s a very good book; full of hints and tips, with lots of tried and true recipes I’ve eaten countless times throughout my life. My grandmother made little checkmarks by many of the recipes, but no notations. Was she trying to cook her way through it, keeping track of what she’d made? Were the checked recipes the ones she liked?
In addition to chapters on “Cakes and Frosting,” “Pastries - Pies,” “Cookies,” and “Puddings and Sauces,” there is a chapter entitled “Economy Desserts,” without explanation, with recipes for cobblers, cakes, puddings, and other desserts. The economy of the recipes is unclear to me. A chapter entitled “Food for Invalids” covers things such as Corn Meal Gruel, Albumen Water, and Cocoa Cordial (“Use in case of chill or exhaustion”). A section entitled “The Lunch Box" is an excellent manifesto. “Lunches, whether for school children or grown-ups, should contain substantial food that will be wholesome, nourishing and appetizing. The school lunch should be a real meal with enough variety to form a balanced diet.”
“A lunch should be packed in a well-ventilated, sanitary container to protect the food and keep it compact and odorless on opening. Waxed paper should be used to wrap all food, and covered jelly glasses are excellent to use for baked beans, vegetable salad, applesauce, baked apple or for a pudding. Highly-seasoned and rich foods should not be placed in a lunch box. Plain, wholesome food is essential for health…Fresh fruit in season is appetizing and healthful…Cooked vegetables as a salad add a note of interest to a lunch box. Raw carrot sticks or celery sticks made crisp in cold water, dried and wrapped in waxed paper make a tasty accompaniment to a meat sandwich…”
The recipes in the chapter “To Make Bread” call for specifics such as rounding cups, level cups, heaping teaspoons, and scant teaspoons. Sometimes an oven temperature is indicated; sometimes the directive is to bake in a “hot oven” or a “quick oven.” When I came across a recipe for grape nut bread (with instructions to use “a fairly moderate oven” and “bake it until its done”) I was intrigued. Alexi’s favorite ice cream as a kid was grape nut ice cream, something I’ve never seen and had never heard of until I met him; apparently it’s popular in Nova Scotia. So I figured grape nut bread was worth a try.
The bread came out nutty and dense, with a pleasing earthy flavor. It’s the best tasting quick bread I’ve eaten in recent memory, and is particularly good topped with orange marmalade. The list of ingredients looks rather plain, but I'll bet you’re going to like it. It tastes virtuous; like falling asleep between clean sheets.
Grape Nut Bread
Adapted from the 1938 Watkins Cook Book
1 cup grape nuts (breakfast cereal)
2 cups buttermilk (I prefer Bulgarian buttermilk)
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 egg, beaten
½ cup packed light brown sugar
2 cups sifted flour
1 cup chopped walnut pieces
Soak the grape nuts in the buttermilk at least 30 minutes and up to several hours. Preheat the oven to 325 F. Grease a loaf pan. In a large mixing bowl, combine the dry ingredients. Add the egg to the buttermilk mixture, and blend well. Add the dry ingredients, a little at a time, to the buttermilk mixture, and mix until just combined. Pour the batter into the prepared loaf pan. Bake, rotating the pan halfway through, for about 1 ¼ hours, until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Let it cool briefly in the pan, and then turn out onto a wire rack to cool completely.