Books, Domestics, Food and Drink, Mothering

The Joy of Cooking

I'm thinking about my mother today. She died in 1993, became my mother in 1961, married my father in 1950, came into this world in 1925. I have to think about the math to realize she would be 83 now, but it seems unreal because she died at 67 and I cannot imagine her older.

The 35-and-a-half year gap in our ages seemed enormous, but I had a daughter at 34 and a smidge, and I understand better now. The gulf between mother and daughter may be as yawning as the closeness at other times feels oppressive.

Yesterday, while we waited for Snowman to arrive, I suggested cooking to Light Princess. We had plans to order his favorite pizza, so I wanted to make a dessert. She gave me the dead eye. "Why do you want to make a dessert?" I took a deep breath. "He is skinny and hungry," I said. "Let's make custard."


She allowed that she had made lemon custard once with her dad and thought it was great. And so we embarked on a culinary adventure.

Baked Custard 2
I first made custard in 1986. We lived in C-Ville, The Father of My Children and I, though we had only one very small child at the time. My mother needed "female surgery" to treat endometrial cancer, and my father dreaded hospitals;he decided being near her daughter would be the best thing for my mother. He managed to get her referred to the University of Historic Commonwealth in C-ville for her hysterectomy.

I went dutifully to the hospital each day that week, in between breastfeeding a six-month-old and covering for a sick colleague at the undergraduate library, a job I left to have the baby. My mother struggled with the aftermath of the surgery. I remember an old-fashioned hospital room, the heat of summer, a few issues of temperament, and a Mennonite nursing student from across the mountain, this last the only bright spot of my mother's hospital stay.

One day I arrived and my mother told me to go home. "Take these milk cartons," she said, "take them to your apartment and make custard. I can't drink the milk, but custard would be good for me."


"Custard? I don't know how to make it!"

Joy of cooking
"You'll find it," she said, "in the 'Joy of Cooking.'"

I remember riding the University bus with the two little cartons of milk. Back at Family Housing, I turned to the index of the 1975 edition. It still felt a bit unfamiliar, a wedding present in 1983, one I hadn't used much. After much consideration, I decided I had a better chance of succeeding with baked custard, rather than boiled, and the Joy of Cooking commenced.

The next morning I returned on the bus, with the custard.

My mother smiled at me for the first time since her operation.

Yesterday I had to hunt for my copy, the cover long gone, the spine cover peeled away. It appears I did use it, after we left C-ville and moved to City By the Sea, when I took on trussing Thanksgiving turkeys and preparing lemon sponge for my in-laws, making brownies cockaigne and scratch cakes that never seemed to rise as high as magazine pictures. The spine is broken at paella, but I don't remember ever making it; it falls apart at quick icings, too: quick white and three-minute and French. Chiffon pies adhere to cheesecake. Lemon curd squares–the page falls out of the book.

Joy of cooking mom
My mother's shelf held the 1946 version. I wish I had it. I remember the heft of this Bible of the kitchen. Anything we needed to know, we could find in The Joy of Cooking.

Her copy fell apart, too, over time. I wonder what stories it might tell?

And whether my daughter will ever wish for mine?

22 thoughts on “The Joy of Cooking”

  1. My favorite cookbook is Virginia Hospitality. I think Annie-Boo has my mother’s copy. And baked custard? Despite having it so many times as a child when I was sick, it’s still my favorite dessert. A little nutmeg on top and I’m in heaven. Yum….

  2. My favorite cookbook is Virginia Hospitality. I think Annie-Boo has my mother’s copy. And baked custard? Despite having it so many times as a child when I was sick, it’s still my favorite dessert. A little nutmeg on top and I’m in heaven. Yummmm

  3. I have that. exact. edition. as you, a wedding gift one year later, in 1984.
    Mine is in fairly good shape, as I found the recipes for organ meats and other “exotic” things beyond my abilities.
    But you can barely read the “gingerbread” page, for all the splatters from before I got my kitchen-aid mixer.

  4. Huh. My parents were married in 1950, too. And I arrived in 1961. Your mom was just a little older than mine (1927), but mine lived longer (75).
    My mother did not have The Joy of Cooking. Too fancy. We had the red plaid Better Homes and Gardens. It was a 3 ring binder, just like it is now, but smaller and not glossy. I paged and paged through that thing. It wasn’t in the house after my dad died. I expect she threw it away after it fell apart. Boy, I’d love to get my hands on one of those.

  5. And my mother was born in 1925, married in 1947, had me in 1948, died in 1987. I came late to the Joy of Cooking, my mother had the Modern Family Cookbook by Meta Given. I have a slightly later edition I found at a used bookstore, since hers also fell apart. I think the first cookbook I bought was the paperback Fannie Farmer Boston Cooking School. Others followed thick and fast. I do love custard; I choose custard pie whenever it is on offer at the bean suppers. I don’t remember having many chances to cook for my mother; I can see why you treasure the memory of the custard.

  6. I use The Joy of Cooking all the time. This story made me feel a bit nostalgic because my dad loved custard. I’m glad you have this memory of making it for your mother.
    I hope your desert turns out wonderfully.

  7. I haven’t had custard in years! But I used to love it. Hope it turned out well.
    My lat m-i-l lived by her Fanny Farmer cookbook…I think one of my daughters has it now. And my own mother was more of a Better Homes and Garden red plaid book kind of cook.

  8. I am custodian of all my mom’s cookbooks and collected recipes. She was born in 1924, married in 1953, and died in 2005. The one cookbook she never owned was the Joy of Cooking. She had the Better Homes and Gardens, and Fanny Farmer, and the Good Housekeeping and a wonderful old one called Creole Cooking that is the place we go for pecan pie. While I was growing up she was was a great intuitive cook, but feeding a family of 7 on a limited budget kept her cooking to great, inexpensive, budget-stretching meals. Once we all grew up, and money was easier, she started her “gourmet-cooking” phase and took classes, bought exotic ingredients, and really started experimenting. One gift she gave all of us was a “cookbook” of her own – a looseleaf binder of our family’s collected favorites . It’s heavy on the desserts and treats, and it’s our go-to reference for those special family memories. I’m trying to pass the recipe history on to my children . . . .

  9. This made my cry buckets. You, with your mother, riding the bus, making custard. Your mother smiling at you. You and LP cooking from it together for Snowman.
    I grew up with “Joy” also; it was my mom’s mainstay. I have no idea what hers originally looked like, because the first time I was aware of it, my older sister was re-binding it in red for a Girl Scout badge. It must have been in very bad shape, and I must have been about … four at that time. I remember the names as they were inscribed on the new spine, “Rombauer and Becker.”
    My “Joy” looks just like yours but is a 1995 printing. My mom inscribed it for my birthday and wrote “You can still call home for recipes!”
    My copy falls open to Paella, too! but I think I was making Jambalaya on the same page. The red ribbon marker points out that I am still not easy with making Gravy. Somehow I think that once I am, I will be grown-up.
    I bet she will want it!
    ps: mmm, lemon curd squares!

  10. What a treasure your sweet stories are!
    I have also used it for gravy, MB, as well as bechamel sauce (on the facing page). I’m surprised that page didn’t fall open.

  11. This post made me cry. I have my mom’s Joy of Cooking. The Bible of the Kitchen– so true!
    I learned so much from my mom, who died this past April.
    Wonderful post! Thank you!

  12. Yes, the Joy of Cooking was the Bible of our kitchen, too, when I was growing up. My mother’s fell apart, was replaced, and then the replacement fell apart. It’s the first cookbook I bought when I got my own apartment, and I remember being astonished, when I married, that my dear husband relied on a different cookbook for all the basics. Just one of many signs that we were joining two very different perspectives on life together in one household …

  13. I have a two-volume set of my mother’s, of which I’ve never known the title — by the time I came along at the tail-end of the kid string, the spines had been replaced with contact paper, with “1” and “2” written at the top in red magic marker. Using them is like going back in time.

  14. Great post! It reminded me of my beloved mother-in-law. When she was dying of brain cancer, she craved custard–but not just any custard, the custard sold by Luby’s, a local cafeteria chain. So every time we went to see her, we stopped at Luby’s to bring her custard.
    My grandmother gave me the Joy of Cooking when I was engaged and I finally had to replace it a couple of years ago when it fell apart from use!

  15. I didn’t grow up with many family recipes, but I still have my mom’s Better Homes & Gardens cookbook. But that’s about it, since my mom died when I was little, and my grandma wasn’t much of a cook. (Grandma passed along recipes for authentic Swedish spritz which she never made because she didn’t have a cookie gun, some unbelievably decadent frosted brownies, and her perfect spice cookies – which have never turned out right for me. She probably left an ingredient out on purpose. Gram wasn’t a cook, but she was a character.)
    So I often turn to the Joy of Cooking (1997 edition) for good basic advice. Right now, my copy is open to basic yeast breads. I love how they explain how to turn any of their basic white bread recipes into whole grain breads. Yes. I’ve been asked to bake bread for Thanksgiving.

  16. A lovely post. I haven’t made baked custard in years, but when I have, it’s been Blender Custard from my mother’s 1951 Joy of Cooking. I should have thought of that when we were talking about blenders the other day.

  17. Joy of Cooking, wedding gift, 1985, which makes me right in line with you and CH. The red ribbon is frayed almost to where it joins the spine; there is a big orangeish blotch on the page for sweet potato waffles, which we apparently ate a lot of, back in the days I had a waffle iron. My #1 Son-aged son writes from Ireland for Thanksgiving recipes. As the only American in his apartment complex, he is in charge of dinner Thursday. I suspect that LP will indeed wish for your cookbook, and I doubt your mother could have finer custard in heaven.

  18. Oh, what a wonderful post. And cookbooks bring back so many memories for me. My mother still bakes every day ….

  19. Loved this… I too use my Joy and also the More With Less… and have fond memories of baking with family and friends…
    Have a joyous Thanksgiving, Songbird!

  20. wonderful, I have the same cookbook as my mother; Mrs Beetons cookbok, my grandmother had one too.

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