It’s old and tattered, but it’s one of the only things I have from Mémère, my maternal grandmother. It’s a cookbook on poor quality acidic paper almost too fragile to touch. This thin collection is part of her legacy including a few pieces of kitchenware, stories my mother tells, and our genetic link.
Alice McDuff Bessette. She died when I was one. She appears in a few family photos and in a home movie taken on my first birthday.
I have little in common with her. I’m tall, close to six feet. She was 5 foot 4. She had brown hair, brown eyes, and a dark complexion. I have blue eyes, light brown hair, and freckles. According to my mother, her mother could sing and play the piano. I croak with a tune and can’t play an instrument.
There is only one thing we share: A love of cooking. My mother tells me I’m a good cook like her mother. So she gave me her mother’s cookbook and her rooster decorated mixing bowls.
The book is an ironic piece of family history. I can’t tolerate wheat.
The cookbook is the King Arthur Cookbook of its day. Five Roses Cook Book: Being a Manual of Good Recipes produced by the makers of Five Roses flour, a Canadian company.
This 6 x 9 inch 143-page family artifact is a remnant of the years she lived in Canada.
Born in Fall River, Massachusetts, Mémère married a man from Quebec. She lost her U.S. citizenship for it. The Expatriation Act of 1907 stripped native-born women of their citizenship when they wed an alien. It wasn’t until 1922, that the Cable Act reversed that law for most women, but not all. Women who married aliens not eligible for citizen still lost their citizenship.
After the wedding, they moved to Quebec where my mother’s eldest sister was born. Alice and her husband Eugene made many trips between Trois–Rivières Quebec and Pawtucket, RI to visit family.
Tucked in the pages are other recipes she clipped from newspapers.
One for piccalilli, a type of relish made from green tomatoes. Another for donuts. They had a huge backyard garden, and I imagine her canning a lot of food to feed her five children plus the boarders they took in.
According to my mother, Saturday nights were for “get togethers.” Family and friends would come to their house for food and music. Grandmother played the piano while everyone sang and someone called out dance steps.
When I asked my mother who cooked, she said that both of her parents made the food. It was a partnership.
As I look through the pages of her — or should I say their — cookbook, there are no notations to mark favorite recipes. No stains to suggest which pages they frequented. The lack of evidence within could indicate that this cookbook wasn’t their favorite, just a historical stowaway in their final belongings. By 1915, Five Roses Cook Book was available in at least 650,000 households. According to my copy, “Five Roses is the favorite in one million Canadian homes, not because it makes the most bread per sack or the best bread, but because it is steady, regular, dependable.”
My Mother claims her parents used this cookbook all the time. It’s a survivor. My grandmother first used these recipes more than a century ago. Perhaps she kept it as a reminder of her early married years.
For me, a glance through the pages brings back a sense of their history together and the world around them. Recipes like Maple Icing (likely a popular choice in Canada) and cakes such as the Lancashire Parkin, made from oatmeal reflect the heritage of those Scottish individuals who settled in Canada. My grandparents and their ancestors were some of them.
These recipes let me experience the past through food. It makes me feel closer to two people I’ve only heard about. I’ll make some of their favorites for my siblings and my cousins. As a gluten-free person, I won’t replicate these recipes exactly, but with trial and error, I’ll still get a sense of what the original smelled like. I’ll be able to breathe deep the smell of history.