Since then I’ve been thinking about my own culinary upbringing and what I would write should I ever evolve the talent to join the ranks of esteemed contributors to The New Yorker. I’m sorry to say “elegiac” is not a word that sprang to mind as I accessed the memory banks of my childhood food experiences. Aside from my sister, Beth, I doubt there are very many folks out there who can relate. And while I’m quite certain no tissues will be required unless a cold has grabbed hold, I thought I’d give it a go anyway.
Mom was all about teaching her daughters to cook. Partially, her motive was normal mothering instinct, but I’m pretty sure her prime objective was to get her two daughters cook-capable in order to pick up some of the work load. She worked full time and as a result, for our ages, we were charged with some fairly hefty responsibilities. By the time I was in 5th grade, and my sister in 7th, we were each cooking dinner two nights a week. Beth, a natural-born homemaker, was much more game for the idea than I. She would spend time, follow recipes, take pride, and put something together that could generally qualify as cuisine. Her chicken and rice casserole was everybody’s favorite. I, on the other hand, had no designs on mastering the domestic arts, and tended to fall back on box meals, mac and cheese and tuna casserole. I viewed cooking as just one more chore on the list. Scrub toilet—check. Vacuum carpet—done. Make dinner—well, if I must. Ho hum—the drudgery!
As a thrift measure, we’d buy half a side of beef at a time and when the huge freezer truck pulled up in front of the house, my sister, mom and I would form a sort of bucket brigade with meat so the butcher-paper parcels could be loaded quickly into the garage freezer. The white wrapped packages would sit dutifully on the shelves, like nutritive soldiers, awaiting their fate in the oven or fry pan. The steaks and more interesting cuts would always be consumed first. By the time we’d get to the last of the packages—ranks of ground beef—many months or perhaps a year later, the remaining militia would have succumbed to some fairly serious freezer burn. We’d amputate the frost-bitten appendages and put the aged recruits out of their misery in the form of spaghetti sauce, meat loaf or if I was cooking, ‘70s-innovation-run-amok, Hamburger Helper. To my childish palate, Hamburger Helper tasted just dandy, but in my adulthood, I’d never touch the stuff. In fact, as a direct result of eating so much ground beef, I've developed a lifetime aversion to hamburger. Time will tell what such meaty consumption has done to my veins and arteries.
Vegetables were tricky. Salad was a rare treat and fresh vegetables were not done for the most part. This would have involved too much reliance on timely shopping. Frozen was the vegetable method of choice. Little wonder that my sister despised vegetables for the most part. Beth had a very short list of acceptable veggies that didn’t result in tears when Mom insisted we eat everything on our plates. Born in the 1933 depression years, Mom would turn harpy if your plate wasn’t clean. For me, as long as it wasn’t Brussels sprouts or lima beans, I’d eat it. I may not have liked it but I’d do just about anything to avoid a set to.
Mom’s method to get the frozen bricks thawed and cooked as quickly as possible was to put the burner on high, dump the ice-blocked vegetables in the pan, add a little water and walk away to do something else. Usually this included refreshing her 16 ounce screwdriver with a shockingly high ratio of vodka to OJ—the seed of another story all together. A good percentage of the time this would result not only in burned vegetables, but a saucepan that required SOS soap pads, overnight soaking, and plenty of elbow grease to remove the charring. We had blackened pan scouring down to a science. If Mom was cooking, you had an 80-20 chance of being required to expunge the cremated remains of some unsuspecting food item off the cookware.
Indeed, high heat and carbonized food was a recurring theme. Steaks at our house were regularly cooked flambé. I believe this was unintentional but I could be wrong. Mom would set the oven rack so close to the broiler coil the grease would catch fire. It apparently never occurred to her that lowering the rack might avoid this issue. Steak night almost always erupted into a flaming circus act with fire licking the upper cupboard and flour flying in order smother the flames. I was never sure if it was better to be in the kitchen nervously watching the pyrotechnics or hiding in my room and waiting to hear “Hey, the meat’s on fire!” from down the hall. It’s true we never had to call the fire department, but when I was younger, I found these burnt offerings more than a little disturbing. I silently vowed never to cook steaks in my own house when I grew up—far too dangerous. It wasn’t until I got out more that I realized ours was the only family to cook their prime cuts by immolation.
For company and holidays Mom’s traditional, East Coast, Welsh/German sensibilities would momentarily prevail and we’d dispense with combustible comestibles—except by design. A roast of some sort—beef, lamb, pork or turkey—was always in the offing and, amazingly enough, was always cooked to perfection. On these special occasions, salad and fresh, unscorched vegetables would grace the table having been purchased with the fest in mind. Mashed potatoes and gravy prepared in a conventional manner were welcome additions to the main course which was served with pomp and circumstance on china, accompanied by silver and proper linens in the dining room.
Dessert for these formals affairs was usually a Mrs. Smith’s pie of some sort. You could almost pretend you made it yourself since it had to be baked in the oven. (An aside: My sister managed to master pies in her late teens, whereas I am still in awe and want of pie-making skills. I trust Whole Foods or Costco for pie unless it’s pecan. Pecan, I can manage with the aid of a store-prepped shell. Pastry seriously intimidates me.) In the event of Christmas, persimmon pudding was our traditional dessert and because old habits die hard, the brown mound was treated to a dousing of flaming brandy. The display was always impressive but nerve-wracking. I’d hold my breath and try to decide if water or napkins might be best in case I had to spring into fire-fighting mode. Looking back, it’s surprising I hadn’t become somewhat inured to the idea of blazing food. To Mom’s credit, the pudding always burned itself out without emergency intervention and the delicious, raisiny cake was devoured with hard sauce. Right-o. The alcohol was never forgotten.
Aside from formal meals, Mom’s other culinary forte was weekend breakfast. During the week cold cereal was de rigueur. But on weekends Mom would sometimes pull out the stops and make French toast or pancakes and bacon. Reliably, these would be mornings when Beth or I would have had friends sleep over. I think it was mom’s way of waking us up and getting us going on the weekend so there weren’t two or three teenage girls sprawled over the living room fold-out until 11 or noon. She’d also take the opportunity to hang out and get whatever info she could from our friends about her daughters' for the most part unexciting “private lives”.
These special mornings, much to our annoyance, Mom would start making a ruckus in the kitchen around 9. As soon as the bacon aroma teased our olfactory bulbs, we’d give up our futile attempts at sleep and stumble into the kitchen. It’s true, sometimes the pancakes were a bit darker and oil-smoked than ideal but we weren’t picky. I never told my friends this was not typical weekend treatment. I think they thought every weekend was one, long morning pancake party. Good thing they didn't stick around for steak night.
The antithesis to formal meals and morning pancakes was Mom's most creative and least delectable contribution to our nutritional history—homemade TV dinners. You remember TV dinners—right? When you’re a kid, they actually seem exotic or exciting in spite of what they actually are—an entire meal frozen in a sectioned-off aluminum tray. Mom would save the trays and when we had leftovers, we’d segregate the food—meat in the middle, veggies on the sides—wrap the tray in foil and freeze it. Weeks or months later the food would be resurrected in the oven.
Not surprisingly, these were not appetizing meals. My sister was fairly certain we’d die young because of them. The food didn’t survive the storage well and upon the great foil unveiling you’d find desiccated meat and overcooked veggies. Reconstituted freezer burn reigned supreme. To avoid the dryness we tried adding a bit of water to the sections before heating which only succeeded making a runny mess of everything that nothing could possibly help anyway—unless it was the miraculous appearance of Meals on Wheels.
Maybe it was mom’s way of assuring us these were “real” TV dinners, because more often than not we’d eat them in front of the TV when usually we ate at the kitchen table. My sister, older and wiser, had the good sense to merely pretend to eat—choking down a few bites and pushing the vitiated vittles around with her fork. Younger and hungrier, I ate the ersatz TV dinners despite their unappetizing essence. I don’t think it ever resulted in actual illness, but the thought of this desecration to leftovers does arouse a certain, vague nausea to this day.
In spite of the burnt offerings, TV dinners gone wrong, and over indulgence in beef, Beth and I grew up healthy. I have not retained many of Mom’s lessons in haute cuisine although it’s widely agreed that my mac and cheese—a noodle or two short of being elegiac—is the bomb. I’ve modified the recipe significantly since my girlhood and my half-Italian husband informs me it’s more akin to baked ziti. Beth has cleaved to her homemaker roots and continues to carry on and improve many of Mom’s food traditions. She is the only person I know who makes Yorkshire pudding for the holidays, a carryover from Mom’s Welsh side of the family.
Mom passed nearly six years ago. We never really spoke of it, but I assume she was happy in the knowledge that her oldest daughter was and is doing much improved and less flammable versions of many of her recipes. And her youngest daughter, never big on domesticity, has not set anything in the kitchen on fire for at least a decade, and has become a respectable cook herself. Even her discriminating, foodie husband agrees.
Mom, I applaud you on job well done. I do hope at some point you gave yourself a pat on the back. It's a shame I never did. Now I wish I had. On second thought, maybe I’ll need that tissue after all.