The first Gourmet magazine I ever set eyes on was at my friend E’s home when I was in the ninth grade, a very long time ago. It did not belong to her mother, Mrs. J. It belonged to her father, Mr. J. The latest issue was always carefully placed on the side table next to his chair. If her father wasn’t home, I would plop myself down into his big, green leather chair, prop my feet up on the footstool, and spend hours slowly turning each page. I was fascinated by the illustrated covers, the photographs of elaborate table settings, and the travel articles. I loved to study the back section with its postage-sized black and white ads for restaurants around the country. The listings for New York City were the best. Now here was a city that had so many restaurants that the directory had to be divided by neighborhood: Midtown, East Side, West Side … The mini reviews of each restaurant would boast how this was the best place for “fill in the blank.” A more cynical reader would have stopped to compare the paid advertisements along the outer edge of each page to see if there was a direct correlation between advertisers and good reviews. This fourteen-year-old didn’t care.
This was a glimpse at what gourmet dining was all about. An exotic place so many worlds away from my suburban hometown. The magazines that were fanned out on the cocktail table in my home had titles like Better Homes and Garden, Sunset, and Family Circle. Perfectly respectable magazines but I would bet that not one of them had a recipe calling for sweet butter or a spring form pan in much the same way that there were no “How To” craft articles in Gourmet. The Gourmet editorial staff assumed that if their reader wanted new napkin rings that they would simply purchase them. They would not entertain the idea of making them out of cut-up paper towel tubes covered in foil. Decorating ideas were limited to whatever you could glean by carefully studying the tasteful table settings. I am not sure that they had a buyer’s guide in the back to help you out. If you didn’t know your Spode from your Lenox or your Waterford from your Baccarat, you were out of luck.
So what was a sophisticated food magazine like Gourmet doing in Small Town, USA? Mr. J was a fireman with the soul of an epicure. He cooked every night of the week. If he wasn’t at home cooking for his family, he was at the firehouse cooking for his fellow firemen. Lucky them. Lucky us. At home, he would cook extra servings to freeze so that E and Mrs. J, a schoolteacher, would have dinner already prepared on the nights that he was staying over at the firehouse. On the one night of the week that he didn’t cook—Saturday—he and his family were trying out a new restaurant across the bay in San Francisco. I remember those Saturdays really well. Mrs. J would get her hair done at the beauty shop down the street. E and I could spend the day together doing what fourteen-year-old girls do—read magazines, walk downtown to shop, eat. But I knew that at five o’clock sharp I would have to go home, as it was time for E to get dressed up to go out to dinner. But this was not before we had devoured either an entire batch of Mr. J’s scones or bread pudding, or a jar of his Summer Bread and Butter Pickles.
I don’t really know a lot about Mr. J and how he came to this passion for fine food. I know that he grew up in Minnesota during the Depression. During WWII he joined the Navy (presumably to get as far away from land-locked Minnesota as possible) and landed on the West Coast. He met Mrs. J, a college co-ed, at a dance and the rest, as they say, is history. Like most of his generation, our parents and grandparents have difficult memories of hard times. Food was often scarce or of poor quality. This early experience with food manifested itself in different ways as they grew older. Some, like my mother, couldn’t pass up a sale of any staple and had a freezer so full that it could feed a family of ten for six months. She lived alone. Mr. J’s food interest became about trying lots of delicious recipes and restaurants.
I have been thinking a lot about the Js in the past few weeks because they both just passed away within one month of each other. Most of my memories center on the wonderful meals that I had at their table. When I got married twenty years ago, E presented me with a book of her family’s recipes, all printed by hand with comments from each of them. I would like to share two of the recipes that Mrs. J made for special events. Her comment written in the margin reads, “100,000 calories per 1 inch!” I would agree.
1/3 cup shortening
1 cup sugar
2 well beaten eggs
3/4 cup cake flour
Two 1-ounce chocolate squares, melted (unsweetened)
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 to 3/4 cup walnuts
1. Cream shortening, sugar and eggs. Add melted chocolate. Blend in sifted dry ingredients ‘til smooth. Add nuts and vanilla.
2. Line brownie pan (8”x8”) with waxed paper. Add batter. Bake 350 degrees for 35 minutes.
One 8-ounce cream cheese
1 heaping cup powdered sugar
A bit of vanilla
1. Beat until smooth. Great on the brownies. Especially good on graham crackers!