The summer I was 12½ and Sarah 14 was when our father let us know we were going to learn to cook the meals for the family. We had begun our cooking careers long before, making mud pies out by the garage.

More than once Mom wondered where a bowl or wooden spoon might have gone only to find it in the “mud pie kitchen.” The area was going to be a larger garage eventually so there were cement blocks everywhere. We stacked them to suit our needs and made our own “stone kitchen.” Marcia came down to play mud pies at our house because it was such a nice setup. I remember wasps liked to hang out too. We would bury them in the mud to kill them so they wouldn’t sting us.

Sarah and I were a little excited that we would be expected to cook in the real kitchen. Mom would be there for assistance but not to take over. Sarah and I agreed we would do our best. Dad wanted us to learn cooking as an art before it became a necessity.

Mom gave us a lesson on making a well-rounded meal starting with meat, vegetables and a dessert. We would not be preparing anything from a box. Mom never cooked that way and rarely does today. Weekly trips to the Fare Share Co-op in Norway kept the essentials stocked in our house. We had a 5-gallon bucket of flour that was dipped into nearly every day. We also had fresh goat’s milk from “Annie” and “Greta” to work with.

I had also received instruction from Alice, the home economics teacher, about the appetizing effect of a colorful meal. Alice was a short, compact woman with all the right phrases.

“Toss it in the can!” was her response when I snapped the handle from a wooden spoon trying to mix peanut butter cookies one day. She seemed to have been teaching since our school was founded since everyone had a story to tell about Alice’s class. Some kids had more fun adding twice the amount of some ingredients and then not quite enough of another just to see how Alice would handle trying to fix it. When I produced a colorful plate at home I often smiled to myself knowing Alice would be so proud.

Our first few meal attempts were wrought with error. Burnt potatoes, crispy green beans and small servings; we couldn’t even get boiling down to a science. Sarah would start the meal in the house and I would go pick what was needed from our vegetable garden that we were also responsible for keeping in tiptop shape. We would work together or divide the duties by what each of us seemed to be good at. Or I would get the job she didn’t want to do because I was younger.

Busy Day Cake, courtesy of Betty Crocker herself, was the fastest cake we could make when it came to having a dessert to go with the meal. The cake could bake in the oven while we were eating the rest of the meal and be ready to serve for dessert. Minimal effort was the key if we were going to enjoy our summer. With the help of the electric hand mixer and a short ingredient list we nearly memorized, the cake was in the oven in no time. It was also just the right size for everyone to have some with not much left.

During strawberry season, we made the cake to have for shortcake nearly every other day. Mom grew quite a patch of strawberries so we had plenty. We enjoyed many of the strawberries while they were fresh, The rest were made into jam to have through the winter. Busy Day Cake was a mild but sweet cake so it lent itself to be enjoyed with fruit. It could also be enjoyed with Hershey’s chocolate syrup and a little Heavenly Hash ice cream. Sometimes we would frost it for a festive cake but not often. We were more inventive for the special occasions.

Appreciative roommates

With Sarah and me becoming proficient in the kitchen, it opened a door for our mother to be able find a job away from the home. For so long she had been raising the four of us girls. A few years later, one of her first jobs was cooking the breakfast at Steve’s in Oxford. She worked with a lady named Bunny. Bunny once called Mom a “tree-hugger” because she didn’t make her mashed potatoes from a box. Mom also became an omelet expert. We would beg for them on her day off, and occasionally she would cook us a “Steve’s” breakfast.

To this day, Sarah and I continue to experiment with our cooking. Both of us took from our summer of cooking the ability to make a meal in a moment’s notice with the ingredients we had in the cupboard. We became famous even for putting together pasta or potato salad for lunch when our friends were visiting. We have both had many a roommate thankful for our cooking skills learned from so many great teachers.

Today my own style continues to grow from what I know while adding what someone else can teach me – with a little Busy Day Cake on the side.

Hannah Hinckley is a writer, veterinary technician, whitewater guide and Pampered Chef kitchen consultant. She lives in Winthrop and may be reached by e-mail at [email protected]


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