Comfort and Joy in Traditional Food: It’s not easy making the classics, but it’s an act of love
The beauty of food nostalgia is that it runs deep within familial and cultural veins. The kind of cooking our respective matriarchs exercised was well-executed by rote and pride, leading to cooks who were often tight-lipped with measurements. This traditional knowledge tends to flourish with practice, not through abstractions or explanations, and not from reading.
You should just know when the biscuit dough is right. And when to pull them out of the oven.
Thankfully, Best East Coast Jams, Pickles, Preserves and Bread by Alice Burdick, and Tunes and Wooden Spoons by Mary Janet MacDonald, dole out nuggets of know-how along with the matriarchal sweetness of a grandmother giving a child a cookie.
Burdick and MacDonald understand that today’s home cooks may be food lovers and eaters, but they are not always food makers. These authors know they are addressing a generation that lives on Instagram and recipe search engines, and moans about lengthy headnotes on food blogs. (Such impertinence.) They are highly knowledgeable when it comes to knowing where to eat, but not necessarily in the actual methods of producing.
The emperor has no clothes, but its belly is full.
Burdick and MacDonald both work hard to inform said emperor on the art of kneading bread or making pickles. Their respective works are loaded with recipes and clear instructions.
Both Best East Coast Jams, Pickles, Preserves and Bread and Tunes and Wooden Spoons understand that food is a love language. Yes, that language speaks of comfort and joy.
But it also knows that this comfort and joy can only be built upon a strong foundation of knowledge, built up from working around a kitchen over time. This is the knowledge of how to source, grow, use and store certain foods, acquired through the work to feed families in a nutritionally and economically sound manner.
This is the less-than-fun part of how our families used to eat, but it is how we ended up here, being able to find comfort and joy in our traditional foods.
The recipes contained within these books speak directly to the how and why of people’s past and current eating habits. In particular, this is where Burdick shines. Best East Coast Jams, Pickles, Preserves and Bread is not just a book of bread-and-butter pickles or cinnamon-roll recipes. It is also a repository for learning how to make rose hip or dandelion jelly, buckwheat pancakes, or steamed breads.
Burdick’s headnotes for Barley Bread or Red Currant Jelly give mention to the origins of these recipes and their previous ubiquity on breakfast tables. She doesn’t hit you over the head with historical details, but rather gives a clever nod to how these items were often within easy reach and common. These notes are the salt that seasons this book: missed if not there, but present enough without bringing too much attention to itself.
Mary J MacDonald’s Tunes and Wooden Spoons leans a little more onto the wistful side of things, starting off with an ode to cinnamon rolls and a poem about grandmother’s kitchens. Her recipes also lean mostly onto the sweeter side of things, but with an understanding that the sweet side is a through line in families—representing the idea of demonstrating love through quiet actions and deeds.
MacDonald also makes sure to work in very specific salutes to her Cape Breton heritage in not just the name of her book but also in its contents: Pork Pies, anyone?
MacDonald’s book is very much a love letter to generations past and present. It functions as a temporal and culinary anchor, a mnemonic cooking device for her family.
The book reads very much like the efforts of a family member who wanted to make sure that her loved ones didn’t starve when they went out into the world. Yet she avoids the easy treacly traps of this kind of book, by a certain earnestness. We understand the connection she has between her and her family, but that she wishes to extend her hospitality to her extended community.
Yes, it would be very easy to publish a few recipes here and there in a binder, to be given out as gifts. MacDonald goes a step further, inviting the reader into her home in the most heartfelt and Cape Breton manner possible: eat with us.
MacDonald and Burdick understand that their role as cookbook authors is to deliver successes to their potential readers, to ensure that their respective familial and cultural timelines continue outside of just bloodlines. But they also know that too often recipes are forgotten, viewed as antiquated, or even worse, butchered and misinterpreted by poor and unusable instructions.
To do anything less would be to disrespect the efforts presented by past generations as wasteful. What a sin.
Salt Beef Buckets
Amanda Dorothy Jean Bulman
Bulman does for Newfoundland what MacDonald does for Cape Breton in her book, invites us all with open arms to get to know its culinary traditions.
East Coast Keto 2
All the traditional foods you love—from appetizer to dessert—low-carb keto style, presented with tips, lessons and quick facts to build that kitchen knowledge.