The forbidden cans of salted peanuts were always the first clue: the bridge club was coming to our house. It made the rounds of its members' homes on monthly Tuesday nights, and a flutter of cooking heralded its coming. The ladies drank only coffee or tea -- nobody ever groaned or said anything about caffeine in those days -- and there were the peanuts and bridge mix (nuts and raisins, coated with chocolate) and pastel Jordan almonds in my mother's most special candy dishes, on the card tables as the ladies shuffled and dealt.
But there were less casual delicacies after the games concluded: Walnut Balls, from which powdered sugar drifted like snow into people's navy blue laps as they took a bite. Several different kinds of finger sandwiches: diamond shaped egg salad, beautiful round deviled ham pinwheels and the queen of the party sandwiches: the checkerboards.
How do you get them like that, I demanded to know, and my mother would try to explain, but the assembly of the checkerboards fell upon my geometrically challenged young mind with a stubborn thud, and even now I'm not sure I get it. Time after time, though, the long logs of checkerboards and pinwheels waited mysteriously in the icebox throughout the afternoon on Tuesday, ready to be sliced and served on my favorite pink crystal cake plate: brown and white checkerboards of bread, mortared with cream cheese. They are still a mystery. I found them in a cookbook published in 1932. They go back at least that far, but they have a 1920s look about them.
Actually, the checkerboards were about as creative as my mother got in the kitchen. She was, after all, married to my father, a Yorkshireman who longed for the food of home and got it: a roast of beef every Sunday, with a puffy Yorkshire pudding alongside it. While his mother lived with us we had the pastries of home, too. He hoped my mother would step into the breach when his mother died, and make these things, too, but they were beyond her, so he leaned himself: teacakes studded with raisins and peel, Bath buns, enormous bannocks that took up the whole oven as they baked. And Eccles Cake, a folded over pastry filled with currants and peel, named for the Manchester town in which they are a local staple. Eccles -- as in ecclesia, which is Greek for church. A cake you brought home from church? A cake you made on a holy day? Or just a local cake from a market town, remembering a time before ecclesia meant just church, a time when it somehow made its way over from the Greek into the hodgepodge of the English tongue, when it just meant a gathering of people.
Food from childhood: familiar food, memorable not so much for the artistry of its preparation as for the era it evokes, the era and the place -- that place where you were known and understood, where you were little and did not yet bear the adult burdens you later shouldered. Someone else took care of you then, shopped and cooked and let you help, and the work of mixing up a recipe seemed to you like play.
I turn to my falling-apart Better Homes and Gardens Cookies and Candies book and find the page on which I transposed the recipe for Scotch Teas into something my six-year-old could read, crossing out the word "combine" and substituting the more accessible "put:" Put sugar and butter together in pan. She could read it herself and prepare it herself. It was our favorite cookie.
1/2 cup butter and
1 cup sugar
in a saucepan and cook until the butter melts.
2 cups oatmeal
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking powder. Mix well.
Pour into greased ( I see that I underlined greased for her) 8x8x2 baking pan.
Bake at 350 F for 20 minutes. Cool and cut into bars.
Makes 2 dozen. A six-year-old can do it.