When my father died in 2015, my mother pointed to a box of his cookbooks and told me to take anything I wanted. She’s never been much of a one to use cookbooks. And she hates clutter.
One of the books in the box caught my eye, its bright blue cover filled with the sort of historical culinary things that fascinate me. Knowing how much my father loved Arizona, where he was born, I plucked Arizona Highways Heritage Cookbook from the box. Leafing through it much later, I found a birthday card from his oldest sister Ellen, the book a gift from her, a double blessing. And I found food-stain splattered pages, too, testifying to the recipes that Dad apparently cooked. Like Barry Goldwater’s Chili, for one.
Remember saguaro fruit, which I wrote about in my last post? A quick glance at the index reveals no entries for “Saguaro,” but there are four for Globe, near where Dad was born. And a whole string of entries for Tucson, where I fell hard for the mysterious saguaro cactus, only found in the Sonoran desert.
The saguaro figures heavily into Native American creation myths in the Southwest, or at least in the Sonoran desert. Gary Nabhan, in The Desert Smells Like Rain (1982), tells of how the Tohono O’odham people (formerly known as the Papago) came to view the saguaro cacti of the Sonoran desert as being human.
Saguaros are not seen as a “separate” lifeform at all, not something of an “other,” outside world. Papago classify saguaros as part of humankind; a saguaro cactus “is that which is human and habitually stands on earth.” It is not, I believe, that saguaros are likened to humans because they often have “arms” coming off their upright trunks. It strikes me that the Papago liken saguaros, Cereus giganteus, to Homo sapiens because no matter how much they tend to dominate a landscape, they are still vulnerable.
I am sure that in the beginning it was hunger that drove people to eat the fruit of the saguaro.
According to Arizona Highways, Myrtle Barnes brought an 1832 cookbook to Phoenix, Mrs. N. K. M. Lee’s The Cook’s Own Book. What does Mrs. Lee’s book feature and why would Myrtle Barnes bring it to Phoenix? Who was Myrtle Barnes?
After some fruitless searching in Ancestry.com and Family Search, I still don’t know a thing about Myrtle Barnes. But I do know that The Cook’s Own Book doesn’t have a single recipe with the words “chile” or “chili” in it. And, get this, the author took recipes from other cookbooks. A lot.
In an introductory essay, Feeding America—which provides access to digitized versions of historic cookbooks—states:
This book is generally considered the first alphabetically arranged culinary encyclopedia in America. Its sources were mostly British, including Dr. William Kitchiner’s Cook’s Oracle, Dolby’s Cook’s Dictionary and probably the works of Mrs. Rundell and Mrs. Raffald. The author acknowledges her borrowings but claims that she has added numerous original recipes. There is, for example, a recipe for the cornmeal-using Indian Pudding.
That it was one of the most-used cookbooks in America no doubt accounts for its presence in Phoenix, thanks to our Myrtle Barnes.
Mrs. Lee included a recipe for Naples Biscuits:
Put three-quarters of a pound of fine flour to a pound of fine sifted sugar; sift both together three times, then add six eggs beaten well, and a spoonful of rose-water; when the oven is nearly hot, bake them, but not too wet.
I’d run into this recipe in another context, and wrote about it in a post about Jane Carson’s Colonial Virginia Cookery. Mary Randolph included a recipe for Naples Biscuits in The Virginia Housewife :
Beat twelve eggs light, add to them one pound of flour, and one of powdered sugar ; continue to beat all together until perfectly light ; bake in in long pans, four inches wide, with divisions, so that each cake, when done, will be four inches long, and one and a half wide.
But I digress once again.
If nothing else, Myrtle Barnes’s copy of The Cook’s Own Book attests to the fact that Arizona’s Anglo settlers and visitors brought their ideas about what they considered to be proper cooking with them. (In one definition, Anglo refers to people of European descent.)
Yet the culinary influence of other people in Arizona—Native Americans, Mexicans, Spanish—is very clear in the Arizona Highways Heritage Cookbook. Especially when it comes to chiles. “Chili,” that’s a whole ‘nother kettle of beans.
Mrs. F. J. Steward’s recipe for red chile powder as printed in a 1909 cookbook, First Congregational Church Ladies Aid Society Cook Book, is one of the most straightforward there is:
Red Chili [sic] Powder for Mexican Dishes
Clean thoroughly the red, dried peppers. Place in hot oven for a few minutes, then allow to cool. Crush to powder.
Many of Mrs. Steward’s recipes appear in several pages devoted to Mexican recipes in the same cookbook. And that fact suggests that Mrs. Steward knew something about Mexican food. Or at least an Anglo interpretation of it.
The Arizona Highways Heritage Cookbook is one to cook from, but it’s also a terrific way to learn a lot about Arizona history and geography, jammed packed as it is with informative text boxes and vintage photographs.
I just regret not talking to Dad more about cooking and all.