The high point of the year for North Americans has passed with the celebration of Christmas on December 25th, 2016. The same is also true for Armenians with the Feast of the Theophany on January 6th, 2017. Along with special events at churches commemorating Jesus’ birth as described in God’s Word, the Bible, families gather in their homes to share time together and enjoy special foods.
In my own family, those seasonal treats include steamed pudding with brown sauce and fruitcake, standards for a family that immigrated to North America several generations ago from England and Scotland. As the only daughter in my immediate family, the baking fell to me. In recent years, my father and my brothers have consistently handed me their emptied loaf pan post-Christmas as a very broad hint that they would like a refill. I usually laugh, put the pans away, dig them out the following December, and stuff my electric mixer with the ingredients necessary for ten pounds of fruitcake. Of course, that much cake fills more than my father’s and brothers’ loaf pans. The extra cakes I give to friends and neighbors as Christmas gifts.
This year as I made my cakes, I thought about how I learned to make them. Most women in North America learn to cook from their mothers and grandmothers. I didn’t. My own mother became too ill during my early teens to teach me anything. My family lived too far away from my grandmothers for me to learn anything at their elbows. All of a sudden at the age of fourteen, I became my family’s ‘chief cook and bottle washer,’ as the saying goes. And I didn’t even know how to ‘boil water.’ Oh, boy. My brothers, poor souls, put up with a lot of burnt food before I mastered any amount of culinary skills. So, then, how did I learn? By reading and following written recipes. My mother had gobs of clippings in a drawer in the kitchen and a couple of cookbooks. My maternal grandmother also sent me recipes. In fact, the one I use to make fruitcake at Christmas is the same one grandma sent me decades ago.
Knowing the list of ingredients and specific quantities is one thing. Developing the best methodology is quite another. The latter I learned by trial and much error.
Armenian girls of the Ottoman Empire weren’t given such short shift in the area of training to be homemakers and the family’s cook. An Armenian girl received training from her mother on how to clean a house and take care of a husband. Some of that training came from direct instruction and some from demonstration and example.
In fact, when the girl reached marriageable age (usually twelve) and the men in her family had selected a groom for her, a woman from the prospective groom’s family came over to the girl’s home to inspect her housekeeping skills. A white glove test, if there ever was one.
The young lady, however, was not expected to know how to cook. That she was to learn from her mother-in-law after the girl had married the boy. The young couple usually lived with the groom’s parents the first year or two. That way the bride could learn from the groom’s mother just how he liked his food to be prepared (1977. The Bride’s Escape).
Hmm. Yes, that would provide plenty of guidance to a neophyte cook. And it probably resulted in a happier young husband. This method of wife training should have worked well enough, if mother-in-law and daughter-in-law got along well. At least, it would have been easier on the Armenian girl than the way it was with teenage me.