BY Maxine Lewis
Everyone who knows me knows that I am not an overly sentimental person. I have a tendency to keep my emotions in check around other people and I rarely indulge in reliving the past.
However, today, I found myself back in my life as a little girl again. I have cried and laughed (sometimes at the same time) and remembered my family, in particular my mother, in a way I never thought I could.
Myrtle Evans Hillier died in December, 2010, at the age of 87. Mom was a very intelligent woman but was very insecure. However, the one place where she had great confidence was in the kitchen. Anyone who knew her knew that she was a great cook and baker. She had an eye for a good recipe that few people have and was not afraid to try anything new (just ask my nephew about the great chocolate mousse she created for him). For some years before she died, she was lost in a sea of imperfect memories, each becoming blurry and tattered, until they did not resemble reality. When she moved into the Senior Citizens Home in Lewisporte, I brought all of her recipes back with me, with the intentions of reading through them. This morning, I finally started doing just that.
I could not have anticipated the feelings that swept over me as I started going through them. There were books, scraps of paper, index cards and all manner of paper holding what she thought was a promising recipe. Here was the recipe for chocolate cake that I remember waiting for when I was a little girl. It was awesome and she would make it on Saturday for Sunday dinner. The icing was a simple concoction of margarine, sugar, flour, vanilla and boiling water but tasted delicious. Here were the ingredients for ladyfingers that were a special and rare treat for us.
I delved deeper into the pile and found more than recipes. There was the order book from her father’s store dated 1943 where she wrote down the first recipes she got when she got married. There were many for making fruit cakes and I remembered how she would turn making them into a fine art. From baking the cakes in the wood oven in the old cast iron bake pot (buttered and lined with brown paper) to brushing them with brandy and wrapping them to age for Christmas: every step was a complicated affair.
There was the recipe for ‘Effie’s gumdrop and raisin cake’ with all her notes (she wrote ‘may cut gumdrops and flour, Effie did not do’). Here was the recipe for Mrs. Clara Smallwood’s (wife of the Premier) Christmas cake which almost every woman in Newfoundland copied by hand from the Evening Telegram and which was composed of ordinary ingredients blended with lemon, vanilla and maple flavouring to produce a great cake. Here, also, was the rice pudding with cream cheese to which I was seriously addicted. Next was the recipe for her steamed pudding, which topped off our Christmas dinner and smelled so fragrant from the cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves that the house seemed to absorb the odour for days.
I stumbled on notes. Some notes were written on a scrap of paper in a day when paper was not plentiful as it is now. A note from the Salvation Army officer’s wife regarding practical tests for Girl Guides for a couple of girls was probably dated about sixty years ago. There were notes on the best ingredients to use and the best way to bake them. Believe it or not, I could actually smell many of the things baking as I was reading. I could also see her so intently following what she was doing to get things just right. Every piece of fruit for cake and every vegetable for soup had to be cut to a uniform size. I can also see her dainty little hands arranging everything just so.
I have not finished sorting the recipes. There are literally thousands of them. As her memory became less sharp she no longer picked out good recipes with a discerning eye. Instead, she indiscriminately saved every recipe she came across. It was as if by losing herself in that old familiar action, she could somehow be back in the day when she would actually use them.
Mom’s recipes have helped us keep her memory alive. They are now being passed to the younger generation and hopefully the memories will go with them.