Swift, Dear.

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.

8 thoughts on “Swift, Dear.”

  1. One of the advantages of being older, especially if you’ve had to feed a family for a good portion of your life, is what you learn by repetition…if you’re paying attention. I’ve read and tried so many recipes for various things that I think can throw together a cake if I had to. I throw together bread all the time, now. You do get a sense for quantities of ingredients that go into making a cookie or cake or casserole or whatever. You question the odd ingredient when comparing recipes and can often tell if it’s necessary to the success of the recipe or just an addition for variation. If you aren’t sure…well then, I come here and ask! What ever did our Grandmothers do without the internet?

    1. Well said, Susan!

      As for where our grandmothers got help…I guess that’s what bridge clubs were for!

      – Joe

  2. You were a lucky grandchild, and not just due to cake. I had a friend growing up, one of my extra moms, who finished high school at fifteen and went on to college for her medical degree. Though she finished that at a young age too, she was told women were not smart enough to be doctors, so she did research instead. Some of her work made much progress for liver ailments. How much richer this world will be once we stop judging by surface characteristics.

  3. Great blog. Sounds like you had two amazing women in your life. Mine were not nearly so learned but they could cook. One of them was doing it on a woodstove when I was very young and WOW…biscuits from a woodstove put any other biscuits to shame! She was amazing with the cakes too. All hand whipped and probably little measuring done.

    1. Whoa…that sounds fabulous. Wood stove biscuits. I’ll be thinking about those all day!

      – Joe

  4. Lovely post, Joe. My grandmother earned her PhD in biochemistry in the 1930s, worked with some great scientists, and then similarly to your grandmother, packed it all in when she had her first child. She was a brilliant cook too, but I don’t know if that was a talent she only acquired after leaving academia or if it was something she’d been “cultivating” all along 🙂

    1. Thanks for the comment, Jen…I would think biochemistry would be a great background for cooking and baking! Educated grandmas are great blessings in all sorts of ways, don’t you think? I think of mine — both of them — pretty much every day. They were great ladies!

      – Joe

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