College Cookbook: My complicated relationship with cooking

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My great-great-grandma Martha Marcusson loved to be clean, ride her motorcycle and was an immigrant from Denmark. Here she is pictured with a washing machine, a remarkable appliance at the time. Photo credit: Victoria Petersen

My great-great-grandmother, Martha Marcusson Custer, would deep clean her entire kitchen every single day. My grandma, Sylvia Cowdery Butcher, describes cooking with her as mostly mess prevention and clean up; placing sheets on every surface of the kitchen before they even pulled ingredients out. My great-great-grandmother may have had a bout of OCD.

My grandma’s kitchen is a different story. Dishes may be put away, but the kitchen is essentially a catch-all. Drawers where baking utensils should be have become the home of decades-old electricity bills, batteries and other household knick-knacks. Her countertops are decorated with bags of candy, Panda Express soy sauce packets and printed out recipes for simple dishes, usually from Food Network. She orders out regularly. On one occasion, I recall her serving my grandpa a meal she made from the crock pot and upon the first bite, he praised her cooking, saying that “she should open a restaurant.”

“I don’t even like cooking for you, though,” Grandma said as she made her way to the dining room table.

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My grandma Sylvia Butcher in her home state of California. Photo credit: Victoria Petersen

Grandma Sylvia isn’t the only woman in my family like this. Her daughter, my mother, had a handful of things she made at home. Usually, these meals were easy, used processed ingredients and typically required a casserole baking dish. They weren’t bad, but they were recipes the Pioneer Woman would have published had my mom been exposed to her in the late ’90s and early 2000s. However, when I lived with my mom, my childhood dinners consisted mostly of Top Ramen, breakfast cereal and microwave quesadillas. All made by me.

I didn’t get into cooking until I was an adult, living on my own. I don’t even know if I’m really into it. I do it often, I mostly enjoy it and I surely reap the benefits of it. Perhaps the uncertainty is in my DNA. My mom, Stacy Butcher, was never adventurous with cooking. My grandma certainly doesn’t enjoy it. My great-grandma, Hazel Custer Cowdery, used recipes that weren’t too adventurous that usually consisted of a bunch of ingredients baked into a single pan. My great-great-grandma, whose favorite hobby was riding her motorcycle around her Washingtonian neighborhood, needed her kitchen to be clean at all times, which leads me to believe that cooking was a necessary part of life, not an enjoyable part.

I come from a long-line of women who are iffy on the topic of cooking. Perhaps it was a sign of the times. Women were expected to cook for their families. I suppose if I was expected to do anything because I was a woman I would resent that. I don’t resent cooking, I want to embrace it.

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My great-great-grandma pictured with her mother. Her mother, my great-great-great-grandmother never spoke English, only Danish. I wonder if she liked to cook? Photo credit: Victoria Petersen

For me, making things from scratch is the most amazing way to connect with history, culture and more often than not is the way to creating something that tastes authentic. It can be difficult in times like these when everything is available on a shelf. Why would I make mozzarella cheese if I can just buy some? Because it’s amazing homemade! You understand the process when you do it yourself and you can better appreciate quality products when you try them. It’s also much cheaper to make mozzarella than buying it. So it’s a win-win-win-win. It just takes time, which is all of our downfalls.

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I’m working on it, but sometimes you just need something quick, easy and delicious for friends and family. I have you covered. You know it will be simple, relatively mess-free and tasty because this is my great-great-grandma’s recipe, and it’s the only recipe of hers that has survived for so many generations.

This lemon poke cake recipe will leave the guests you serve it to licking their plates and asking for more.


For cake

1 box of lemon cake (Betty Crocker’s is my grandma’s favorite)

2-3 eggs, per instructions on the box

3/4 to 1 cup of oil, per instructions on the box

3/4 to 1 cup of water, per instructions on the box

One 3 ounce box of lemon jello

For icing

2 cups of powdered sugar

Zest and juice of two lemons


1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

2. Combine all the ingredients in a mixing bowl and mix thouroughly.

3. Pour cake batter into a greased cake pan and bake for 30-40 minutes. The cake is done baking when the color has reached a deep golden brown.

4. While the cake is baking, stir together the lemon juice, zest and the powered sugar until smooth.

5. When the cake is done baking, immediately use a fork and begin poking holes all over the cake. Pour the icing over the entire cake and let it seep through the tiny holes. Let the cake sit for about ten minutes while it cools. Serve and enjoy.