The Making of a Cook

My mother’s mother was a wondrous cook. Or perhaps I should say she became a wondrous cook. When she and my grandfather were first married in 1928, my grandmother knew next to nothing about the subject of cookery. An attractive, bookish type, she was far more interested in the law than in roasts or pies (she had the distinction of being the first female graduate of Loyola University’s law school). Those interests were to change once my grandfather realized that her kitchen repertoire consisted of little more than light salads, vegetables and other insubstantial, womanly fare. So he sent her to cooking school.

In Chicago, that meant just once place: The Antoinette Pope School of Fancy Cookery on Michigan Avenue. The school was run by the husband-and-wife team of Francois and Antoinette Pope. Both immigrants (from France and Italy respectively), the Popes were said to have come from long lines of professional cooks and were icons in Chicago’s culinary community. They even had their own local cooking show in the 50’s and early 60’s, just before Julia Child burst onto the scene in 1963. These days, other than a few surviving copies of their books, the Popes are virtually unknown. Yet they were responsible for turning thousands upon thousands of Chicagoans on to French cooking well before it became nationally fashionable. And people call Chicago and uncultured city!

The Popes’ books and lessons (which cost a princely $1 each at the time) were the foundation upon which my grandmother built a grand house. Like many women of her day, she was less adventurous than she was determined to practice and perfect her personal repertoire. Her cheese wafers are case-in-point. She probably made them upward of a hundred times, and my grandfather critiqued every batch. By the time she died, well into her 90’s, my grandmother hadn’t achieved culinary greatness — at least not outside the family — but she had developed a style that was definitively her own. Her food had flavors, textures and aromas that I remember clearly, but can’t duplicate.

Still, I’m determined to get these cheese wafers right, like a mad scientist building a time machine. One bite and I know where I’ll go: right back to a shaded three-season porch on a mid-summer afternoon in 1972, where a whiff of gin, a moist breeze and an icy glass of ginger ale will be waiting. I’m ready.

8 thoughts on “The Making of a Cook”

  1. It sounds like there’s a sad gap in American culinary history that needs correcting. I read my way through a ridiculous stack of books on the state of cooking in America in the 1950s and 1960s as background for my undergraduate thesis, and I can’t recall a single reference to the Popes.

    Good luck with the cheese wafers!

    1. I agree, Adele! Having lived most of my life in Chicago, I can say it’s a city with a complex: that nothing of any real consequence can happen there. New York of course has the opposite attitude. I think that’s why few people have historically spoken up for and championed the achievements of the Popes, which were considerable for their day. Thanks for the email!

  2. “The Antoinette Pope School of Fancy Cookery” is such a charming story! It makes me want to get their cookbook; what a great trip back in time they must be.

    1. I have the Antoinette Pope School cookbook, but I know there are others. You can still find them on used book sites. People (like me) still think very highly of them, mostly because the recipes are so easy to follow and so thoroughly tested.

  3. I noticed there are a few less expensive editions on Amazon, but the cheapest is still about sixteen bucks. Considering the Popes sold close to a million copies of their books, it’s surprising how few of them are still around.

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