A Culinary Treasure
By Sara Etgen-Baker
My mother’s rectangular-shaped kitchen was tiny—no more than 7 feet long and 5 feet wide—which was to be expected since the house itself was small. When my parents moved into the two-bedroom house in 1952, the kitchen—designed primarily for functionality—came equipped with a moderate-sized refrigerator, a full-size gas range with stove, but annoyingly little counter and storage space. The storage was so sparse that my mother stored her pots and pans in the oven overnight, removing them the next morning when she prepared breakfast.
Although I learned to cook standing alongside her, I often complained about her cramped, cracker box kitchen. When I did, Mother reminded me, “You know when I was a young girl during the Depression, I helped my mother cook on a wood stove that was so old it had holes in it. So when your dad and I moved into this house, I was thrilled! What more do I need? I have a stove, a refrigerator, pots, pans, knives, and serving spoons; everything else is optional. Don’t be so fussy!”
Even without a dishwasher or disposal, Mother was content having just a sink, which was white porcelain enamel-covered cast iron—quite popular in the 50s. Despite its apparent practicality, her kitchen was somewhat modern and stylish with its white metal cabinets, black accents, bright yellow walls, and work surfaces topped with ‘Softglow’ Formica.
After dinner, I’d hand wash the dishes in that sink, leaving them to dry overnight; then, I’d join my mother, aunt, and grandmother as they crowded around my mother’s tiny, cracked-ice Formica table. They’d dump all their S&H Green Stamps onto the table, sort them by denomination, lick them, and then place the stamps on the grid pages of the booklets that the supermarket gave away.
Like most women in the 50s and early 60s, my mother, aunt, and grandmother didn’t work outside the home. So, they diligently collected and redeemed S&H Green Stamps, giving them a means of obtaining items they wanted or needed independent of their husbands. They even helped one another by giving or trading filled stamp books. My grandmother often gave my mother filled stamp books so my mother could get small appliances she needed. Even with my grandmother’s help, my mother saved for nearly two years to have 4 ½ books of Green Stamps—enough to redeem for a Sunbeam electric waffle maker and a Sunbeam Mixmaster.
I accompanied my mother the summer afternoon when she went to the Redemption Center to trade her Green Stamps for the electric appliances. Mother filled out a paper order form; submitted it to the cashier; and then waited for a stockroom clerk to check the store’s inventory to see if the item was available. While she waited, I passed the time browsing through the store, imagining what I’d choose if I had my own Green Stamps.
Then I saw it—The Betty Crocker Cookbook for Boys and Girls—aptly described as a great cookbook for boys and girls, introducing them to basic cooking techniques and utensils and includes simple recipes for salads, breads, main dishes, desserts, and snacks. When I flipped through the recipes, drawings, and photographs, I immediately knew that I simply had to have that cookbook. Even though the cookbook cost only half a book of Green Stamps, I also knew better than to out-and-out ask Mother to give me any of her priceless Green Stamps!
So as we were leaving, I paused at the cookbook display and asked, “Mama, have you seen this cookbook? It’s just perfect for me! Could I do extra chores to earn enough Green Stamps to buy it? Please, Mama, pleeeese!”
“Well,” she hesitated, “I suppose so. You’ll have to be responsible for keeping track of your own stamps and putting them in the booklets. Remember, though, that once school starts, you won’t be able to do as many extra chores. School comes first.”
So, I spent the entire summer doing everything extra that I could—ironing my father’s shirts, folding clothes, vacuuming my bedroom, dusting, and even cleaning the bathroom. I was ecstatic the day I hand-polished my grandmother’s silver, and she gave me almost two-page’s worth of Green Stamps. At some point, even the neighbor ladies helped by giving me Green Stamps for polishing their shoes, ironing their clothes, washing their dishes, dusting their houses, and running errands to the local market. By summer’s end, though, I was four pages short of having the half book of Green Stamps that I needed.
Once school started, I did as I promised my mother, dedicating myself to my school work. So months passed, and I still didn’t have enough stamps to purchase my cookbook. Then a few days before Christmas, my father asked me, “Sweetie Pie, how many more Green Stamps do you need for your cookbook?”
“Now I think I need just three more pages. Why? Do you have an errand or chore I can do?”
“Just curious,” he replied. “Tell you what—grab your stamps and hop in the pickup.”
As I hoisted myself onto the seat, I noticed an envelope full of Green Stamps. When I looked at my father, he chuckled and said, “My gas station started giving Green Stamps; so I’ve been secretly savin’ these just for you as part of your Christmas present. Merry Christmas, Sweetie Pie!”
With that, we drove to the Redemption Center where I filled in the paper order form, and then anxiously waited while the stockroom clerk checked the store’s inventory. Eventually he returned with my cookbook. After the purchase, my father inscribed these words on the inside cover: “May this, your first cookbook, help you to learn to love cooking.” Love, Daddy, Christmas 1961.
At home, we flipped through the pages until my father decided he wanted the Eskimo Igloo Cake described on page 14. So on that Christmas and so many Christmases and Father’s Days thereafter, I made the Eskimo Igloo Cake just for my father—our very own father-daughter tradition.
Even now—50+ years later—I miss baking his special cake in my mother’s tiny cracker box kitchen. I miss saving, licking, and sharing Green Stamps with family and friends. I also miss cooking in close proximity to my mother. Sometimes, though, as I putter around my own kitchen, I can feel her presence and am grateful for her and the kitchen traditions she gave me.
*Sara Etgen-Baker is a freelance writer, technical writer, editor, and retired educator. One of her manuscripts, Journey with Mother,” will appear in an anthology, Wisdom Has a Voice. Another memoir was published in Looking Back magazine. She contributes regularly to Tiny Lights and has been a featured author. She currently lives in Allen, Texas, with her soulmate to whom she been married for 28 years. She can be contacted at email@example.com
Did this story ever touch my heart! First, my mother-in-law gave this cookbook to her grandchildren, my children years ago. The cover is missing but it's the same book. Her daughters used it. Second, I wrote an article about saving green stamps. It was a huge part of my mother's life and even into my life when I was married in 1969. Our first nursery was almost all from the Green Stamp store. I have wonderful memories of getting a new catalog each year from the grocery store. Thank you for a great story. - Christine Collier