Who has time to cook? Why bother?



Who has time to cook, never mind to “strike up a warm acquaintance with your oven and its special temperament”?


Monday morning, September 18, 2000, I was in my car and headed to a film company on Eastern Avenue. I was scheduled to be at a commercial shoot at 9:30 a.m.

This was to be the last commercial of a campaign I’d been working on for months, and I felt a twinge of regret: It had been a great summer working with the ad agency staff. Libby and Michael, the creative team, Donna the producer and Greg the director are among the most talented and dedicated people I’ve ever met or worked with. Together we worked like clockwork, and I felt a real affection for them: I knew I was going to miss them when we finished this last ad.
***
Do working women have time to make pickles, jams and salsas?

Before I left my house for the shoot, I was in the kitchen labeling jars of crab apples I had pickled the day before. I felt rushed and frantic, thinking about how busy the day would be and how much still had to be done before I left for the set — breakfast for the kids, lunches packed, toss a laundry load in. I was kicking myself for even bothering with the crab apples.

“Why bother with all the baking and canning?” I asked myself. “Between work and home, there is so much to do…why add these non-essential projects to everything else? Rita, you spend way too much time fussing over food you could simply buy at the store.”

Johannah’s first Parfaits:
Jello vanilla pudding and
strawberries. Fantastic!

The day before, I had prepared the crab apples with my 12 year old daughter Johannah. She poured the vinegar and sugar into the pan and I put in the cloves and cinnamon. I told her I bought the crab apples when I spotted them at a Farmers’ Market because my mom used to serve them during the holidays, and the sight of them instantly reminded me of my mom.

Johannah leaned over the pan and sniffed. “This pan smells like Christmas,” she announced.
I hadn’t done crab apples in seven or eight years and I wracked my brain, trying to remember whether the recipe called for allspice. I was somewhat irked because although I bought a new edition of “The Joy of Cooking,” the editors have removed all the canning and pickling recipes from the latest version of the book. They note in the forward to the book that they didn’t think working women today use those recipes, and so they eliminated them.
Because I wasn’t sure, I left out the allspice.
Maybe the editors at “The Joy of Cooking” are right, I thought. Maybe women today DON’T have the time it takes to lavish time on pickles, relishes, and sauces…homemade foods in general. Who has that kind of time, when you have to spend so much time just working to survive?
I gave Johannah a clove to chew on, so she would know what cloves taste like. She made a face and spit it into the sink; we both laughed. While we were puttering in the kitchen, she decided to make her first-ever batch of peach jam. It was a great success and she proudly presented jars of it as gifts to her grandma and uncle later that day.
Spending the day cooking with Johannah always makes me remember days spent with my own mother, who passed away almost fifteen years ago at the much-too-young age of 58. Some days, I miss her so much it leaves me with an empty ache that nothing can fill.

My mother, Johannah Hedemark, had 10 kids
including two sets of twins. 

My amazing mother, for whom Johannah is named, had ten kids — including not one, but two sets of twins.  She was blessed with energy, enthusiasm, tremendous common sense and curiosity about life. She was always experimenting with some activity, whether it was home canning, sewing, furniture upholstering, household repair, studying philosophy or practicing religion.
“I’m trying something new,” she would announce at the beginning of a project, “It will be a fun thing.” For the next several days the house would be a whirlwind of pattern pieces, fabric swatches, ball peen hammers, yardsticks, and instruction books. Or sugar sacks, rotting fruit, boiling kettles, spice containers and cookbooks. Or textbooks, notepads, instructional recordings and pamphlets.
It was always fun to be the assistant on of one of mom’s crazy projects, working side by side, chatting about life’s ups and downs. Mom had a tremendous grasp of the concept and importance of love — she pondered it, read about it, discussed it, and practiced it on a daily basis. Homemaking was a form of worship for her – God had given her ten babies to look after, and she was doing the best job possible on the tight budget available to her.

Not only did she raise homemaking to an art form, but she was keen to see her children learn the art, as well: when I was eight, she proposed a deal. So that I would be encouraged to learn how to cook, I could make any recipe I chose from her splattered, dog-eared, coverless “Wartime Cookbook” — and she would do the dishes and clean up the mess afterward.

For years afterward, I spent my Saturdays poring over the pages of that book, “trying something new” and making lots of messes in the process. Mom stayed true to her word, cleaning up after me without complaining, until I was a teenager. By that time, I had learned how to prepare a meal and serve it while tidying along the way – there were no more messes for her to clean up, but by then I wanted her to stick around the kitchen just so we could be together, spending time, talking about love.

***
Finally, I got out the door and into the car, driving to the film company for the commercial shoot.
I smiled thinking of Johannah and the cloves, but at the same time I remembered the hectic pace of the morning; I made a firm resolution to spend less time cooking.  If I took all the time I spent cooking and spent it writing instead, I’d probably be able to retire by now! I made a promise to myself to put strict limits on the time spent shopping for food and cooking. From now on, it would be grocery stores instead of Farmers’ Markets, store bought instead of homemade, and absolutely no more canning for this year.
***
I arrived at the film company, and we did all the normal things done at the beginning of each shoot: approve the wardrobe, approve the set, approve the lighting. I was given the day’s schedule, and we all settled in for a 12-hour shoot.
The premise of the commercial was a dad arriving home from work, being greeted by a mom and daughter waiting for him in the kitchen. I tried, unsuccessfully, to persuade the creative team we should reverse the roles: have the dad and the daughter seated at the kitchen table when the mom arrives home from work.
“Working women could relate to it,” I reasoned. I was tactfully outvoted.
“This is the approved script,” Libby pointed out, correctly.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pgccYUrJY84&feature=youtu.be

Shooting began late, as we had to wait on delivery of a piece of equipment. That was the way the whole day went: just as the director yelled “Roll!” a key light blew out. One hour delay.

He yelled “Roll!” again, and the camera ran out of film. Another delay.
We brought the actors on set…and the little girl was wearing the wrong pants. Another delay as wardrobe ran for the blue jeans.
***
Libby, Michael and I sat at the edge of the set, chatting to pass the time. I asked them, “What was the spookiest thing that ever happened to you — the most ‘Twilight-zonish?'” I love to hear people’s ghost stories.
Libby jumped right in with an amazing story.
“My husband and I were touring Prince Edward Island some years ago, and after seven days of fish for lunch and fish for dinner every day, I was sick of fish. I insisted he take me into town for pizza, although he did not want to go.

Video producer Ralph Lucas and brilliant writer Libby Lucas. 

“In this town, there was a pizza parlour next door to a little antique shop; we went into the antique shop first. My husband collects old phonograph machines, and the guy in the shop was a collector, too, so they got into a deep conversation about Victrola parts that I was not interested in. Upstairs, all the furniture was finished and too expensive, but downstairs in the basement he had unfinished stuff you could buy more cheaply, so I went down to the basement.
“The basement was like a circle, with old junk pushed up against the wall all the way around. There was a big pile of stuff in the centre, with a walkway cleared around it, so it sat like an ‘island’ of stuff in the middle of the room. I started walking around the circle.
“On the far side, I came to an old wheelchair. It was odd, because the wheels were very small, you couldn’t reach them with your hands if you were sitting, it had four small wheels and no way for the occupant to move it. You would have to be pushed by someone else.
“I leaned over and touched the arm of the chair,” Libby said, “and an electrical shock went straight up my arm. And then, BAM! There was a blinding flash of light and I was face-to-face with the occupant of the chair, RIGHT THERE,” she motioned, moving her face only about 12 inches from mine and staring straight into my eyes. My heart was pounding and I could hardly breathe, imagining the shock she must have felt.
Libby continued on, descriptive as only a truly creative person can be: “This man was thin and withered and obviously suffered some kind of palsy, his arms and legs were drawn up — “she modeled the man’s twisted legs, crooked arms and splayed fingers — “and his head was tilted, lolling to the side. He was wearing a brown sweater that was badly pilled, and had a blanket over his knees. He was looking straight into my eyes.”
“What did you do?” I gasped.
“I went back upstairs,” she responded logically. “I asked the store owner, ‘Where did that wheelchair downstairs come from?’ He just waved his hand and said, ‘Oh, we got a load of stuff from the Old Pines Home up on the hill, that was in it. It’s not a wheelchair, though, it’s a bath chair, the kind of chair they use to push people into the bath or shower.”
“I was silent when we left the store, and silent when we went into the pizza parlour. My husband ordered pizza, and I just sat there. Finally, he asked me a question and I burst into tears, and sobbed for several minutes before I could get a hold of myself.
“It wasn’t that I was afraid, although it certainly was a shock. But I was horrified, just horrified, at that poor man’s existence. I sat there sobbing, blowing my nose, and hicupping, trying to explain to my husband why I was so upset.
‘That poor man! He was trapped in his body at birth…trapped in a chair he couldn’t even move himself during life…AND HE’S STILL TRAPPED  THERE NOW!!!'”

***
Michael’s story was less heartbreaking but just as intriguing.
“When I was a kid, there was a contest running on a local radio station. Everyday they would spin a wheel and it would land on the name of one of the world’s city. If a caller guessed which city it was, they would win a prize.
“One morning, I woke and a heard a voice in my ear. The voice said the words, ‘Madrid, Spain.’
“There was no radio on and there was no one in the room. No one was talking to me, it wasn’t part of any conversation. Just out of no where, I clearly heard a voice speak directly into my ear: ‘Madrid, Spain.’
“I said to my sister, ‘I should call into the radio station today, the city is going to be Madrid, Spain.

“Today’s city is Madrid, Spain.” 

“She said, ‘How would you know that?’ I told her about the voice I heard. She thought I was crazy.
“Later in the day, on the radio station, they spun the wheel and a caller called in…the caller had the wrong answer. The DJ answered, ‘No, I’m sorry, today’s answer is Madrid, Spain.’
“Then, a few years later, I got a post card from a girl I had never met or even heard of. It was just your typical post card — “Dear Michael, hi, how are you, wish you were here, having a great time.’ It was signed by a person I’d never met.
“I turned it over, and the post card was from Madrid, Spain.”
Libby and I both lept in with the same question: “So, did you go to Madrid? What happened there?”
“No, it’s funny,” he said. “I’ve been to Spain, but I never went to Madrid.”
“Michael,” Libby chided. 
“You are being called to Madrid.”

We were appalled at his lack of curiosity. “Michael,” Libby chided him, “you are being called to Madrid!”

***
Next it was my turn. I told them the story that still terrifies me to this day, and that is the one about my dream of the man with the knife on my porch.
Some years ago, we were living in a little East York bungalow. I went to bed one night while my son Tommy asleep on the couch. He was about two years old.  He was sleeping soundly and I was afraid that if I moved him, I’d wake him.
In this house, the front door opened into a small vestibule. It was two steps from the front door to the living room door. The couch in the living room was immediately to the left of the door – it was two steps from the front door to the arm of the couch where Tommy was asleep.
I went to bed earlier than my husband, Mike; he always closed up and locked all the doors before bed.
In the wee hours of the night, I had a dream. In my dream, there was a man with a knife on our front porch. In my dream I could see Tommy sleeping on the couch.
I stirred in my sleep, and I must have started to wake up because I had a conscious thought: “I should get out of bed, and go double check that Mike locked the front door.” But I was so tired, I couldn’t move to get up. I argued with myself: “That was just a dream. I can’t see the front porch, and I can’t see Tommy. I’m just dreaming. There’s no need to get up, Mike locked the door, I’m only dreaming.”
Two more times I dozed off and saw the man with the knife on our porch in my dream. Simultaneously I could see Tommy sleeping on the couch.

Tommy, on the couch near the door. 

Finally, I thought, “Well, I won’t get any sleep if I don’t go check the lock. I’ll do that, and then I can sleep peacefully.”
I staggered out to the front door: it was open about 6 inches.
I was quite surprised, startled fully awake. I pushed the door quickly shut and turned the deadbolt. I didn’t look out the door, or the window: I just shut it and locked it in one smooth motion.
I kissed Tommy’s forehead, and went back to bed.
***
The next morning, I was saying good-bye to Mike at the front door as he left for work. On the porch, he bent over and picked up a pair of sunglasses.
“Are these yours?” he asked. No, I’d never seen them, I replied.
“Hey, they’re cool,” he said, trying them on. They were an 80’s pair of wrap-arounds. “I’m going to wear them to work today. Let me know if you find out whose they are.”
We both looked out and noticed there was paper all over our lawn, paper blowing up and down the street. We wondered where it came from — and then he left for work.
Later that morning, my neighbour Dawn was out in her business suit, picking up all the papers.
“What is all that?” I asked her.
“Trevor’s truck got broken into last night, and my briefcase was locked inside,” she said, exasperated. “Whoever broke in opened my briefcase and dumped it, probably looking for a wallet. My sales files are all over the place; I’m trying to salvage what I can.” I helped her pick up as many pages as I could.
Mike Smith always was a sucker for a great pair of sunglasses.
Clearly, our daughter Johannah has inherited this trait. 

Later that day, Mike arrived home from work, wearing his newly-found sunglasses. Dawn’s husband Trevor pulled into his driveway at the same time.

“Hey, you’re wearing my sunglasses,” he told Mike. “Where did you get those?”
“Oh, they were sitting on my front porch this morning,” Mike said. “I didn’t know where they came from.” He handed Trevor back the sunglasses.
“Those were in my truck when it got broken into last night,” Trevor said. “I thought they were gone for good, that they’d been stolen.”
I felt a sick shiver go down my spine. How had the sunglasses gotten from Trevor’s truck to our front porch?
“Trevor, was anything else taken in the break-in?” I asked.
“Well, Dawn’s briefcase got dumped,” he shrugged, “but other than that, the only thing missing is my father-in-law’s hunting knife.”

***

“Libby, Michael, Rita, we need you on set to approve propping in the kitchen.”
The assistant director’s call startled us all; we jumped out of our seats, a little relieved to be done with the ghost stories, and walked out of the dark shadow of the sound stage into the bright light of the kitchen set.
The props people do an incredible job: they take a big, black empty warehouse set and build a “kitchen” which is open on two sides for camera movement. When you see it on TV, it looks real and warm and inviting, a cozy kitchen. In actuality, over the open top and at the two sides it is cluttered with lights, booms, cameras on moving carts, tons and tons of equipment.
The props people do an incredible job of making a 
large, empty soundstage space look like a warm, cozy kitchen.

This kitchen looked so real –pictures and kids’ artwork on the fridge, dishes in the drainer, coffee cups on the counter, towels on the rack. Even a basket full of mail, with phone bills and postcards — so real!

Above the sink was a hanging plant. To either side, on little shelves, were stacked cookbooks.
We were all there, Libby, Michael, and Donna. Greg, the director, was walking around with a 35 mm camera snapping photos, “documenting the set” as he calls it.
As we were scanning each counter, each cupboard, each shelf, my eye was caught by a thick, old-fashioned looking green hard cover cookbook. I pulled it down off the shelf and flipped it open. 
I turned a few pages, and there was a photo I’d seen before: a frosted Neopolitan cake, white and pink and chocolate. I was amused by how sweet and old-fashioned the book was, using layouts and language and even typefaces that haven’t been used for decades. The book had to be sixty years old. 

I scanned a couple of the recipe headings, and again, something told me I’d seen them before. I wondered where. I put the book back on the shelf. The illustration on the inside cover looked vaguely familiar; I thought I’d seen that photograph somewhere before too — a tray full of little frosted petit-fours.
“So are we approved for propping?” the assistant director wanted to know.
The “kitchen” set was so cozy, we hung around talking
as though we were in a real kitchen. 

“Yes, yes, it looks terrific,” we all agreed. In fact, it was so cozy that we all hung around, leaning against counters and talking just as though we really were visiting in somebody’s kitchen. 
People were talking to me, laughing about this or asking a question about that. I could hear their voices and I knew I should be paying attention, but there was a buzzing noise in my ear and a flashing light in the corner of my eye. I could not stop my head from turning back to that cookbook.

I looked away, and looked away again, trying to focus on what Libby was saying to me, until finally I just had to say, “Please excuse me, I have to look at that book again.”
I pulled it down off the shelf again and opened it — to a recipe for Lady Baltimore cake that I had made when I was eleven years old. Could it be possible…?

Get a grip, I said to myself. Think, think, think of one memorable, unique recipe that you made from Mom’s coverless old cookbook and see if it’s in the index. The buzzing in my ears got louder. Every recipe was there.

Welsh Rarebit — page 378
Chicken Croquettes — page 344
Seven minute icing — page 479
My heart was pounding and I couldn’t hear for the blood rushing in my ears. I looked up to see everyone on the set staring at me.
“This is my mother’s cookbook!” I exclaimed. And there, in front of the most professional group of people I’ve ever worked with, I burst into tears. Fifteen years after her death, I missed her more than even I knew.
“Of course her copy was completely beat up…there was cake batter on most of the pages and she wrote in the margins…the cover had been torn off before I was even born, so I never even knew what it looked like,” I explained. “This copy is in much better shape…but this is the book I learned to cook from, this is my mother’s cookbook.”
I think everyone had been so surprised to see me burst into tears, they were relieved it was a happy, not a sad, occasion.  Greg cheerfully snapped several pictures of me, crying, in the middle of a group of stymied but sympathetic people. Libby was patting my shoulder comfortingly.

“Do you think the prop manager would let me buy it?” I asked Donna. “It would mean so much to me to have this book.”

“I’ll check into it for you, I don’t think it would be a problem,” she assured me. Then, as we stood there, I flipped through more pages and came across a piece of paper being used as a bookmark. I pulled it out of the book…it was a piece of a sewing pattern, the waistband to a skirt!!
“Using a pattern piece for a bookmark — this is exactly something my mother would have done!” I laughed, starting to cry again…I looked down at the recipe on the page the pattern piece had been used to mark and stopped dead still, shocked silent:

Imagine my shock when the book fell open to a recipe for Pickled Crab Apples,
with the place marked by a sewing pattern piece. 

Pickled Crab Apples

4 quarts crab apples
2 cups vinegar
5 cups brown sugar
1 tablespoon whole cloves
2 sticks cinnamon
1 tablespoon whole allspice

I tried to talk but my voice was strangled in my throat…I just sort of coughed and whimpered. I put the book back on the shelf, and we all left the set so shooting could resume.
The happy ending to the story is that the ad agency gave me the book as a gift, to take home to my own kitchen.
“This makes such a great story!” Michael said to me excitedly. “Now, you’ll take this cook book home and cook for your family, and you’ll be sharing the love your mother shared with you by doing so…this story has everything!” he enthused.

The only time I ever cried on set. I have this photo 
because the director was snapping still shots to “document the set.” 

Michael was right, but even he didn’t know how right. Earlier that very day, I’d resolved to spend less time cooking and more time working; that surely would have meant less time at home, less time with Johannah, less time focused on my whole family. Finding that cookbook, that sewing pattern piece, and that recipe — including the missing allspice!– was like having my mom step out of the darkness and take me by the hand.
“Let’s try something new,” I could hear her voice saying. “It will be a fun thing.” Only now she would add, “And let Johannah pick the recipe – we’ll clean up the mess for her, so she’ll be encouraged to learn to cook.”

***
The actual Cookbook cover. I never saw it
until the day of the shoot – my mom’s 
copy was cover-less and dog-eared.

Would I have noticed the cookbook if I’d come across it in a used book store, instead of on the kitchen set of a commercial? Would I have noticed the pattern piece, or the crab apple recipe?

Would the feeling of coincidence have been as powerful if the commercial set was a living room, or library, instead of a kitchen?
Was the irony of leaving my own daughter behind and rushing out of my own kitchen to go shoot a commercial about a woman who has time to spend in her kitchen with her daughter so overwhelmingly stressful that my mind was playing tricks on me?
Was the fact that I was sad, knowing I would miss Libby and Michael and Donna, just an echo of how much I was in fact missing my mother?
Would I have felt my mother’s presence as strongly, if we hadn’t spent an hour telling ghost stories before we stepped onto the kitchen set?
Would I even have had the time to notice and look through the book in the case of a normal shoot schedule, if we hadn’t been plagued with exploding lights and other delays?
Was my mother really communicating to me directly, through the cookbook, the pattern piece, and the crab apple recipe? If so, what was she saying to me?
I don’t know the answers to these questions. But I do know the very next day my phone rang, and it was Rob Nicol, a man I respect greatly, offering me a job as Director of Tour for the Premier of Ontario. It would be very prestigious job, extremely demanding, including the guarantee of many very long days.
“I know you’re pretty set in your direction, and on staying freelance,” Rob said, “but there’s no question you would be the best person for the job, and I would kick myself later if I found out you would have taken it, if I’d asked you.”
I was flattered, and for a moment, tempted.
“Thank you so much for thinking of me,” I said, “but I really do have to carve out more time for my home and my family over these next few years. I hope you can understand.”
I felt completely confident in my decision. In that moment, in that phone call, it was crystal clear to me which path I should be taking.
And why my mother had contacted me so directly, the day before the phone call.
–Rita Smith

Whenever people ask me the secret to raising amazing kids, I tell them, “Food is huge. Always have chili in the crockpot.”

Photo Credits:
The “oven photo,” the recipes and the cover are all portions of “The American Woman’s Cookbook,” first published in 1938 and copyright Consolidated Book Publishers Inc., Chicago, Illinois

The video link and the set photos are from the Ontario Government Ministry of Education commercial we were shooting on that day.

The family photos are mine.

Ralph and Libby Lucas courtesy of Libby Lucas.

The Madrid shot is from the Tourism Spain website.

3 thoughts on “Who has time to cook? Why bother?

  1. I’m trying to catalogue my books, and one of the books I own is the cookbook my grandmother received as a wedding present, in 1953. The cover is missing, random pages are stuck all over, and the first page is to get acquainted with your oven!

    Thank you for posting this, and for google having you be the very first result. It was a delightful read, and your description of your mother’s cookbook is near identical to mine!

  2. Tegan, your comment just appeared today! I am so glad you found my blog while looking for info on your grandmother’s cookbook. Enjoy the book! It is a real treasure. I hope you also enjoy my cooking videos on YouTube, my channel is ritasmithification


    Have fun cooking for your family!

Leave a Reply