I’m editing a cookbook. Those of you who know me well must be savoring the irony. Don’t get me wrong – I like to eat. I’ve always enjoyed good food lovingly prepared. By someone else. I once baked a steak. A sirloin. Thought I’d give dinner a kick start, save a little time, do the family a favor. Wish that were my only kitchen disaster.
So how does the Queen of Botched Meals end up editing a cookbook?
She raises her hand in a meeting of the Thousand Islands Land Trust’s Marketing and Development Committee. Chairperson Mary Hannah Arnot of Wellesley Island and Summerland Island needed help from her committee to pull together a cookbook TILT is creating in celebration of the organization’s 25th anniversary. I’m on the committee, and helping to compile a cookbook sounded like a fun project to this retired English teacher; we’d be collecting, reading and clarifying recipes submitted by regional cooks and others who simply appreciate the Thousand Islands.
And submit they did! Susie Wood, TILT’s Membership Coordinator, has received close to four hundred recipes.
Let me clarify precisely what “editing” means in this context. My daughter Sarah asked me if, by editing, I have been preparing every recipe to be sure ingredient amounts are correct.
Nope. (One exception: I served Susan Johnson’s “Delicious Salad” to five friends. The lemon, Dijon, and poppy seed dressing over greens, cashews, dried cranberries, apples, pears, and grated Swiss earned howls of approval around the table.)
My job is to create uniformity in the symbols used in each recipe: C. equals cup, lb. equals pound, T. equals tablespoon, and so on. I also have to make sure that all instructions are clear and accurate. For example, consider the importance of the instruction “Do not eat!” that closes Cynnie Buchwald’s “Scented Cinnamon Ornaments” recipe. Accidentally delete that imperative, and someone will end up driving a four-year-old to the emergency room hoping some doctor can coax the glue out of his system.
I have spent many winter afternoons and evenings reading and tidying recipes that conjure sweet images of family and friends gathered on the River in summer to enjoy time-tested favorite meals – and other interesting concoctions.
Today, for example, February 27, a powdery snow is softening the Thousand Island Park landscape, and I am reading Kathy Halsey’s Birch Island Cookout recipe, a blissful mixture of chicken, potatoes, corn, lemon juice, butter, and – for a bit of zip – Lipton’s Onion Soup Mix. I envision an entire family deployed in the preparation of this meal, slicing, slathering, grilling, while the River flows past. Kathy’s instructions offer, “We ate outside; too messy otherwise! Just pull back the corn husk to use it as a handle, paint the corn with all the butter you can stand, lean over, and chomp away. The chicken was tangy from the lemon, and the potatoes were always just eaten out of their foil wraps. What could be better on a warm summer evening as the sun sets? Not much!” No doubt a few folks on Birch Island have washed their buttery hands on the shores of the St. Lawrence over the years.
Two of my personal favorites are not really recipes but stories by a couple of real River Rats. TI Life’s editor, Susie Smith of Sagastaweka Island, just off Gananoque, Canada, sent her “Notes to an Island Bride,” bulleted notes in which she makes entertaining up to eighteen people every summer weekend appear uncomplicated, joyful.
Susie jettisons all the Martha Stewart rules of perfection, tosses out anything fussy, directing the hostess to have as much fun as the guests. She writes, “Mismatch antique plates, side plates, soup bowls, wine glasses. Mismatch silver flatware and use real cloth napkins (saves on taking garbage to town; weekend guests get one napkin with a napkin ring.)” Susie’s fourth bullet states emphatically: “Only start preparing dinner 1.5 hours before guests arrive. Whatever is not ready does not get served. I never spend all day in the kitchen!” Any fears of entertaining are banished!
Dr. Dick Withington of Round Island sent instructions for his one-off “Lumberjack Apple Pie,” baked for a ladies’ charity some years ago. Those of you who are regular readers of TI Life have enjoyed Doc’s chronicles of his winters on the River – on the island. His apple pie is fare fit for a Survivor episode. Doc’s pie is baked on a fire “built using shagbark hickory mixed with small pieces of black cherry.” And the reflector oven it is baked in is fashioned “out of a can that a ham had come in.” Doc’s customary wit closes the recipe: “The pleasure of this pie will last longer if you don't invite too many friends to sample it; most of them won't appreciate the effort you put into it.” In Doc, the River has her own combination Jack London/Mark Twain.
More than a few of the recipes are history lessons, either having originated with regional celebrities or having been necessitated by major world events. Ken Deedy of Grindstone Island and Diane Ames of Wellesley Island collaborated to send in a caramel ice cream recipe attributed to vaudeville actress Mae Irwin. The recipe is borrowed from Irwin’s Home Cooking, of which few copies remain in print. Lots of milk and cream and sugar at play here. Just forget your diet.
Doreen Meeks of Grindstone Island and Clayton Center submitted her mother’s “1940s Wartime Cake.” Doreen, the quintessential volunteer, someone who seems to be able to be in multiple places at one time and who has boundless energy, is well known for her potluck dinner contributions. Any recipe from Doreen will be worth the effort. Doreen said of this grab-whatcha-got-in-the-pantry cake, “Mom (Helen Calhoun) used to make this cake using food rations and surplus ingredients. No frosting needed, just a spoon for all us kids to lick the bowl.” Life’s simple pleasures endure, even (especially) in difficult times!
Visitors from beyond the River region sent recipes to the TILT office. The most noteworthy geographic stretch comes in the form of a recipe from Matthew Bose of London, England. Matthew is a frequent visitor to Rob Roy Island in Chippewa Bay. He is an actor, a British actor. When Matthew speaks, you could swear you’ve fallen into an E. M. Forster novel. But the voice that drives his cocktail recipes is contemporary, cheeky. You just know that his parties must be a ton of fun. Who wouldn’t invite this guy for a week on the River? He quips about one option for preparing his “Perfect Woo Woo”: “A great result can be achieved by relaxing about the etiquette and just chucking everything together and slinging it down your neck, you know?”
And this brings me back to Mary Hannah Arnot and the TILT Committee. The committee is truly “chucking everything together,” gathering cooks’ eye views of life in the Thousand Islands. Whether the recipes were submitted by someone whose family has been on the same property for several generations, by someone who returned after a lengthy absence, or by someone who visits whenever he can, the common denominator is an affinity for an unrivaled deep, swift body of water.
What does the Land Trust do? Its mission statement says TILT is “Working to conserve the natural beauty, wildlife habitats and recreational opportunities of the 1000 Islands region.” By purchasing properties for stewardship, working with individual property owners to create land conservation easements, partnering with other environmental organizations to maintain or reinvigorate a natural ecological balance, and educating the public about ecological issues, TILT ensures that this region will continue to be a desirable place to live and to visit. The work of the Thousand Islands Land Trust will be furthered by sales of the cookbook, which will be available for purchase at the organization’s June 11th annual Community Picnic at Zenda Farm.
So that’s why I am editing a cookbook, one with the purpose of sustaining the beauty and balance of the landscape so many of us enjoy every day.
Plus, with this book on hand, I might never ruin another meal. Bonus!
At this moment, though, I can ask, “What snow?” It might be February 27th but, because of this project, with entries such as Kate Breheny’s “Summer Bean Salad,” Elaine Tack’s “Cottage Margaritas,” and Rindy Heck’s “Mango – Curry Shrimp Salad in Wonton Cups,” I am immersed in July.
By Erin McCarthy Brick
Erin McCarthy Brick, a native of Northern New York (Malone), moved to The River in 2004, after 30 years in Alexandria, Virginia. She has been a TILT Trustee since 2006. She lives in Thousand Island Park on Wellesley Island year round.
Editor’s note: When Erin wrote to ask if we would publish her story, I had to think twice. Once because I am the current president of TILT and this may seem self serving – and again, when I realized that it was such a great story and I knew our readers would like it!