NANCY EDMONDS HANSON: After Thought — Raised On The Back Of The Box

I was all set to make the first pumpkin pie of the holiday season when I discovered an essential part of the family tradition had gone AWOL. Handed down by my grandmother and Mom herself, the heirloom recipe we’ve always prepared was missing!

No, disaster hadn’t hit my 60-year-old recipe box; nor had Grandma’s old Our Savior’s Lutheran cookbook, with its handwritten notes and mysterious stains, disappeared. The dilemma was far simpler: Hornbacher’s had had a fine sale on canned pumpkin early this fall, and Russ had laid in a lifetime supply — of the wrong brand.

Horrors! Not that he’d been wrong about hoarding, of course: After the Great Pumpkin Scare of 2015, he was only being prudent. But every pumpkin pie baked by a member of my family’s female lineage — going back at least to the 1930s — has been concocted according to the recipe on the back of the Libby’s label.

Of course, that’s not quite what Grandma called it. She pronounced it “receipt.” Fully capable of prepping the fresh garden variety herself, she still swore the puree in the esteemed cans was not only more modern, but infinitely more delicious. While she’d never have permitted Pillsbury ready-made crust a turn in her prized Pyrex pie plate, she held Libby’s in highest esteem. No one who ever tasted her classic pie at Thanksgiving or Christmas was inclined to disagree.

The pioneer spirit prevailed this time. I bravely embarked on the uncharted Festal route, and the result turned out pretty much OK. But it all seemed just a little … off.

That’s what happens when your first memories of Mom’s home cooking were shaped by the aisles of Red Owl and Piggly Wiggly. Nothing new — no matter how subtle and complex, how America’s-Test-Kitchen endorsed, how blessed by TV’s top chefs — tastes quite as good as the recipes that our mothers collected from magazine ads, labels and the back of the Quaker Oats container.

The recipes my mother handed down to me, when you track them back to their birth, turn out to be as much the product of Madison Avenue as any hereditary kitchen sorcery. No surprise there. Mom more or less regarded cooking as less an art, more an unavoidable necessity for keeping mind and body together. She averaged out her roles as a full-time schoolteacher and a modern housewife of that still-aproned era. What she loved best, I think, were recipes that cooked quick as a wink, looked swell and could be consumed by husband and kids without too much comment.

In other words, she counted on the experts — Betty Crocker, Campbell’s, Kraft, Jell-O, Nestle and, naturally, Spam — to come up with easy edibles. Canned, boxed or frozen, she and her peers gleaned the recipes that make up our modern comfort foods from the back of packages and the pages of women’s magazines. And while she’d tear out (and usually misplace) pages from Woman’s Day and Good Housekeeping, she preferred the ultimate convenience of no-fail favorites that came right along with the product … branded standards that didn’t even even require digging out a recipe.

The epitome of back-of-the-box cooking, at our house, was Bisquick’s Pineapple Upside Down Cake. Each square was topped with a golden ring of canned pineapple and a maraschino cherry squarely in its center, then topped with a dollop of Dream Whip. Pretty as a picture, that little cake highlighted many a special moment that we celebrated around our red Formica kitchen table.

It was a perennial on the back of the Bisquick box, along with its family-approved friends — strawberry shortcake! Soft American-style dumplings! Perfect pancakes and waffles! Even the frankly weird Bisquick Impossible Pie was worth an occasional dusting-off and serving-up.

Nothing else, though, could put the “Oh” in “occasion” like Baker’s German Sweet Chocolate Cake. I grew up regarding it as Mom’s crowning culinary achievement. We originally assumed her recipe had been passed down from some wandering Deutschlander who chanced upon the shores of Norge. Nope. An Englishman named Samuel German developed the sweet baking chocolate, then plastered the recipe right on the back of the wrapper.

Just once per year, when a special birthday was in sight, I was sent to the store to buy the ceremonial bar of German chocolate, along with a quart of buttermilk, all but a cup of which would languish in the back of the refrigerator for the rest of the year. The grocery list also included Eagle Brand sweetened condensed milk, another somewhat odd product set apart by its portrait of Elsie the Borden’s Cow and a hellishly pricey bag of whole pecans. Too, you always checked the supply of butter. By the time those three ridiculously delicious layers were concocted, baked, assembled and ooooo-ed over, a whole pound of butter had disappeared from the fridge.

Mom did know her way around that 1950s pantry. Armed with only her battered Better Homes and Gardens New Cook Book (a wedding gift in 1948) and the local Ladies Aid book of potions, plus the hints in her sack of groceries, she kept us all well-fed with no help from the Food Network fuss and fervor that’s forever changed the kitchen landscape. Martha likely wouldn’t consider Mom’s cooking such “a good thing.” It wouldn’t warrant a single one of Emeril’s ebullient “bams!” As for the Iron Chefs, they’d not so much as tip their toques in her direction.

But I remember her dishes as delicious. This time of year, it all comes back when we break out the Chex Party Mix. Even more than her piece de resistance, Tuna Noodle Casserole, it brings back all the warmth of the Fifties.

I’m pretty sure General Mills dreamed up Chex Mix as a devious defense against breakfast cereals that made their mark with marshmallows, cartoon spokescritters, fluorescent food coloring and the irresistible promise of those grrrrrreat sugar-frosted flakes.

Forget that overhyped traditional Christmas fare — chestnuts roasted on an open fire, wassail, figgy pudding …  At our house, the true arrival of the holidays was heralded by Chex Mix.

The formula was exquisitely simple: Combine a box of every square cereal that General Mills purveyed with a cup of melted butter, a couple shots of Worcestershire sauce (whose name we badly mangled) and numerous shakes of Schilling’s garlic and onion powders. Bake it for an hour or so in a slow, slow oven. When the anticipation is nearly unbearable and the buttery, garlicky, toasty aroma has teased you to the point of mad distraction, pour into a big wooden bowl and inhale.

Sometimes Mom would get fancy, adding a sack of boring pretzel sticks or peanuts. Then, as now, such revisions were small, though tolerable, acts of heresy. Unwelcome intruders like nuts have to be picked out and surreptitiously slipped into someone else’s bowl before you can graze through all the good stuff. But they still accomplish what she probably had in mind: They stretch out that supply of Chex Mix just a little longer. Those nasty peanuts are the snack equivalent of speed bumps.

4 thoughts on “NANCY EDMONDS HANSON: After Thought — Raised On The Back Of The Box”

  • Helen Murphy December 7, 2016 at 3:16 pm

    I just made two Libby’s pies myself for Thanksgiving. I made sure the recipe was still on the can and thought it might be wise to write it down should it suddenly disappear. My sister insists on using Festal pumpkin because she uses the recipe our mom used and it is very different than the Libby’s one. It has molasses in it and Festal has a stronger pumpkin flavor. It is the one I grew up with and like the best too but when asked to bring pumpkin pie, I know people are expecting the Libby’s version so that is what I bring. I bought a Festal can of pumpkin yesterday because not all stores carry it and maybe I will experiment. Now if I could only teach my husband to like pumpkin pie I would make it more often than at Thanksgiving.

    1. Nancy Hanson December 7, 2016 at 6:02 pm

      I had no idea, until now, that we weren’t the only ones who brought deep-seated prejudice to the vegetable aisle! Thanks for sharing, Helen. PS. If your husband doesn’t get with the program, mine says he’ll be happy to help you out with tnose pies.

  • Kate Cole December 8, 2016 at 1:51 am

    Oh, Nancy. My accomplished fb friend, feminism not withstanding, I feel as if I finally Know you on a different level. A warm conversation shared in either of our Mother’s or our own kitchens. Thank you, for reminding me of familiar dishes served on celebratory and traditional ( company is coming) in a toasty, not to worry, I’ve got this recipe down, moments.
    If this makes no sense, you know for sure, it has been sent by Kate Cole.
    Have a lovely Christmas. Will you be preparing the real home made fudge via Borden sweetened condensed milk?

  • Sheri McMahon December 8, 2016 at 9:23 pm

    I don’t use a recipe. I stick to 3 eggs and go light on the liquid, which may be milk, evaporated, sweetened condensed, possibly some maple syrup, one year softened ice cream which is all I had (excellent pie, btw), and as much sweetening as needed depending on what liquids I used. Pumpkin pie is very forgiving.

    The trick I learned from America’s test kitchen is to lightly bake the crust alone for 10 minutes at 350 while warming the custard to about 110 degrees, stirring so it doesn’t cook at the bottom of the pan, then pouring the warmed custard into the warm crust and finishing at 350 for about 45 min. Nice flaky crust and the pie doesn’t sweat at all.


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