The magic my mother’s mother worked in the kitchen was learned. She wasn’t a natural, as she readily admitted. She grew up a bookworm on the South Side of Chicago, rather poor yet part of a privileged generation of women who were — for the first time in American history — going to college en masse. It’s commonly thought that it wasn’t until after World War II that women in America started leaving home and taking degrees in higher ed. In fact the trend started well before then, back in the teens and twenties. It was only interrupted by the war, when men went overseas and women went to work.
Once the war was over men returned, flooded the labor market and created an economic downturn. It took several years for life in the States to normalize again, and by the late 50’s and and early 60’s, education for women seemed like it was happening for the first time.
My grandmothers were very different people. One grew up isolated and curious in the tiny farm town of Ambia, Illinois. The other came of age precocious and determined, a feisty Irish kid in Chicago. Both of them went to college and emerged with degrees. My father’s mother had a BA from the University of Illinois. My mother’s mother took her education even further, becoming the first female graduate of Loyola University’s School of Law. That was no easy feat in those days, particularly when her professors made her stand and leave the room when the topics of rape or sexual deviancy came up in class.
She proudly received her degree but she never practiced, since the only thing she loved more than the law was my grandfather, who was a traditional man that had family on his mind. Still, she remained the intellectual light of the family for two more generations. She lived well into her 90’s, and even at that advanced age was sharp enough to remind her grandchildren that it was in fact Jonathan Swift who wrote Gulliver’s Travels, not Alexander Pope…and then from across the room, after two martinis.
And while she may have entered the world of cookery somewhat reluctantly, in time she embraced it. I always wondered at the way she could pull a full lunch for four together out of scraps. Wasn’t that refrigerator empty just a second ago? Ask her for the recipe to that addictive pink salad dressing she’d just whipped together and she wouldn’t know. Great cooking eventually became that instinctive to her.