My Mother’s Cookbook; Rhubarb Pie and Mrs. Ratcliff’s Divinity
When she was eighty-seven, my mother compiled a book of recipes that were the favorites of her family. My brothers and I suggested the book and assisted with typing, proofing, and printing it. Our interest in this project was self-serving, because we wanted to insure that the recipes we’d loved so dearly as children would be preserved and passed on to the generations after us. Although cooking and eating these dishes in our own homes as adults is never as magical as when we were served them during our childhood, the food still tastes like good home cooking should.
Mother was a skilled cook, and she paid attention to the color, texture, presentation, and balance of food groups she served. She grew up with a fascination for food. A diary she kept at the age of sixteen describes the food served at a community event to celebrate the safe return of local boys at the end of World War I, and the entry ends with the words, “yum, yum.” In her early twenties she studied Home Economics at Iowa State University. After a few years of teaching, she married my father in 1927 and began a career in homemaking that she truly enjoyed.
The foreword to her cookbook explains, with a certain wry humor, what her destiny in life was to become:
"Probably the first recipe I ever acquired was Mrs. Ratcliff’s divinity and it is included in this collection. From the time I took home economics in high school I enjoyed cooking and was encouraged by my father particularly. Then my husband married me because I was a home economics graduate! It has been a lot of fun.” Anna May Cullison, 1991
The 19th Century saying, “the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach,” was still acceptable at the time my parents were young adults. Present-day women might find this attitude both sexist and demeaning, but my father intended the highest compliment to his bride and he always encouraged her culinary efforts. He rarely cooked himself, but together they shared a love of good food and enjoyed reproducing dishes at home that they’d tasted in restaurants or at friends’ homes. Mom had well-developed taste buds and could identify the ingredients of complex dishes, and she knew how to put the parts together to achieve the result they wanted. Dad was the taster and made suggestions about adding a little more this or that.
My father had spent a lot of time sitting at the kitchen table watching food being prepared. He’d grown up in the house where we lived and had observed his mother, also a good cook, long before he brought home his prized “cooking” bride. So he knew about culinary process, which is fundamental to a successful outcome in the kitchen.
The summer before I was to be married I decided I’d better get serious about learning how to cook. I thought I’d bake a pie, not exactly the best choice for a beginner.
Both my mother and Grandmother Cullison, who lived with us, made excellent pies, and the secret to their flaky, tender piecrust was lard. This rendered and clarified pork fat is richer than other shortenings, thus the crust is particularly delicate to handle. Rolling out a perfect round of piecrust takes practice, and Dad was watching closely from his chair at the kitchen table as I struggled to shape the tender crust and transfer it to a pie plate. But the crust kept falling apart before I could get it into the plate. The day was hot and sunshine streamed onto the enameled table where I was working, with sweat trickling down my temples. Dad cut short my misery by explaining to me that the dough had become too warm to be useable. That ended my plan for becoming an instantaneous good cook.
I did finally learn the secret to making pies almost as good as Mom’s, but she still made my favorite rhubarb pie when I came home to visit in the summer.
Mom’s Pie Crust 1 ½ cups flour ½ cup lard (butter or other solid shortening may be substituted) ½ teaspoon salt 4 tablespoons ice water Mix shortening with flour and salt, using a fork, pastry blender, mixer, or processor, until it forms balls the size of a pea. Add cold water until dough is moist enough to be rolled thin. Chill in refrigerator for half hour or so. Handle dough as little as possible when rolling out bottom and top crusts.
3 cups rhubarb, cut into bite size chunks
1 egg, beaten 1 ½ cups sugar (or more, according to taste)
1 heaping tablespoon flour (more if rhubarb has a lot of moisture)
¼ teaspoon nutmeg
2 tablespoons butter
Mix first five ingredients. Put filling in 9 inch pie plate lined with unbaked crust. Dot the filling with butter. Cover with top crust and seal to bottom crust around the edge of plate. Sprinkle extra sugar on top crust. Bake at 350 degrees for 1 hour.
I didn’t learn to cook until after I got married, and then my mother proved to be a supportive mentor. I would call her in Iowa from my kitchen in Ohio, which was fully equipped with all the necessary cooking appliances, pans, and dishes, and even a spatula just like she used, but not yet permeated with the mélange of aromas that define a place where good home cooking is done. She would send me the recipes I had requested of her typed on 3x5 inch cards, with detailed instructions to encourage my success.
My card for the divinity recipe from Mrs. Ratcliff, who was a neighborhood matron in Mom’s hometown of Red Oak, IA, is typical of the attention she gave me in explaining process, because making candy from scratch is difficult. Melted sugar tends to crystallize as it cooks, creating an unpleasant gritty texture in the finished product. For my mother to attempt making this candy at the age of fifteen says a lot about her innate cooking skills. I remember the snowy mounds of divine divinity drying on wax paper on our kitchen table and the subtle flavor of vanilla as my teeth sank into a perfectly smooth-textured morsel.
Mrs. Ratcliff’s Divinity
2 2/3 cups sugar
2/3 cups water
2/3 cup white Karo
3 egg whites
1 teaspoon vanilla
Cook first three ingredients over medium heat, stirring and lifting sugar from bottom of pan. If sugar crystals get on sides of pan above the syrup level, wipe them off with cold damp cloth or pastry brush. Cook to hardball stage, until a small amount of syrup hardens when put in cold water. (244 degrees Fahrenheit using a candy thermometer) Beat egg whites with electric beater until stiff and then add syrup slowly in a steady stream. Continue beating until candy thickens to a dull sheen. Add vanilla. One half cup chopped walnuts or candied cherries can be added at this point. Drop candy by spoonfuls on waxed paper to harden. Store in airtight container.
Great progress in the art of cooking has been made since these recipes were first conceived and used. New kinds of equipment streamline the cook’s chores and ingredients have been tested and refined to insure a uniform product. Sleek and shiny designer kitchens look like a cook’s dream come true. But the pure love of cooking and sharing food with family and friends remains the same satisfying experience it always has been. That’s the most important ingredient in any recipe.