This week, I took a short, sweet trip back in time.
It was on Monday evening that I pulled a 10”-square padded envelope out of the mailbox at the end of my driveway. I smiled, knowing what was inside.
In the kitchen a few minutes later, I snipped open one end of the envelope. I think I caught my breath, just a little, as the brightly colored, spiral-bound book inside slid into my hands.
The “Fun to Cook Book” was first published in 1956, when I was two years old, by the Carnation Company, a family-owned business that at the time was marketing Carnation Evaporated Milk, Carnation Instant Nonfat Dry Milk, Carnation Instant Chocolate Flavored Drink and Carnation Malted Milk — plain and chocolate.
In the early 1960s, during the fearful uncertainty of the Cold War and the looming threat of nuclear attack, my mother stockpiled dozens of cans of Carnation Evaporated Milk in the big closet under our cellar stairs. The pine-board shelving also swayed under the weight of Dinty Moore Beef Stew, B&M Baked Beans, B&M Brown Bread, Del Monte Fruit Cocktail, Jif Peanut Butter, Hawaiian Punch and much, much more.
Makeshift bomb shelters like ours were common in the Washington, D.C. suburbs where we lived. The popular thinking was that, when the Russians dropped the Big One, we would all scurry into our basements and wait a few weeks for the nuclear dust to settle before resuming normal activities. We would be sustained by food stores set aside by responsible housewives like my mom, including reconstituted Carnation milk for drinking and pouring on our Cheerios.
As the months and years rolled by, Mom rotated the stores in the bomb shelter to make sure the food down there didn’t spoil before Armageddon arrived. Every few months, she’d shop for ‘fresh’ canned goods for the basement and bring the older stuff upstairs for our family meals. We ate a lot of beef stew and fruit cocktail in those days.
Cans of Carnation Evaporated Milk also found their way into the kitchen cabinets. But since we kids abjectly refused to drink the stuff or use it in any way except for feeding it to the cats, the cans tended to pile up on the top shelf. It wasn’t unusual to punch a triangular hole in the top of a can and position it over the cat’s bowl only to discover the contents inside were too congealed to pour out. My mother, eager to use up the canned milk before it reached this revolting stage, started checking the labels for recipes.
One day — I was probably 9 or 10 — she found an offer for a children’s cookbook on the label. The “Fun to Cook Book” promised to engage young girls in the excitement and pleasure of the modern kitchen, featuring — surprise! — lots of recipes that included Carnation Evaporated Milk. Hopeful, my mother sent away for the book.
I don’t know what she paid — maybe $2.50? I imagine her sitting with good posture in a tweed skirt at her writing desk, snipping the label into a neat rectangle and Scotch-taping it to a blank index card, along with a couple of dollar bills and two quarters.
“To Whom It May Concern,” she would have written in her neat, sharp-edged hand on a separate sheet of business stationery. “I write in response to the enclosed offer…” She folded the page crisply and tucked it into a legal envelope, stamping and sealing it firmly. She was like that.
When the book arrived, weeks later, Mom promptly handed it over to me. I had already begun to haunt the kitchen, more interested than she was in the preparation and enjoyment of food. The “Fun to Cook Book” was just my speed — easy, step-by-step instructions, safety tips and lots of lively drawings featuring “Margie,” the pigtailed, pedal-pusher-clad daughter of author Mary Blake, who had written several other books for Carnation.
Sure enough, to my mother’s delight, virtually every recipe in the book, from salad dressing to meatloaf, called for liberal amounts of Carnation Evaporated Milk. The stacks of dusty cans on the top shelf dwindled as I cooked my way through scrambled eggs, macaroni and cheese, chewy brownies and creamy, gelatin-based strawberry pie. The book also showed me how to rinse and store lettuce so it would stay crisp, to concoct a pie crust from crushed graham crackers and to plan a simple, coffee-and-dessert bridge party.
A product of its times, the “Fun to Cook Book” included many admonitions to ask “mother” or “big sis” for help with sharp knifes, gas burners and other potential dangers. The men of the family were presumably busy with careers and sports when they weren’t at the table eating. This seemed perfectly reasonable at the time. Who needs a bunch of boys in the kitchen, anyway?
I don’t know why, all these years later, it occurred to me to look for the “Fun to Cook Book” on the Internet. It has long been out of print, but it popped right up on Amazon.com. My used copy, in “very good” condition, cost me about $10 and shipped from Oregon. I’ve been enjoying it all week — the simple recipes, the charmingly outdated illustrations and the warm memories of my mother and the times I grew up in.