Enter your email address below and subscribe to our newsletter

At Home, Cookin’

I recently attended the funeral of a dear friend’s mother. The eulogy delivered by her daughter was warm, heartfelt, and brought a smile to people’s faces when she spoke about her mother – the worst cook she’d ever known. She explained in great detail how her mother prepared her specialty. She’d line a casserole pan with canned ravioli, then pour two cans of spaghetti and meatballs over it, top it off with American cheese, and bake it until the cheese turned brown. I had to laugh, but it did surprise me. I thought everyone felt, as I did, that their mother was the greatest cook in the world.

My mom was the queen of good, down-home cooking. What always amazed me was that my mother was the youngest in a family of twelve and was raised during the Great Depression years. I remember her telling me that her family was lucky if they could afford meat on their plates once a week – usually Sunday dinner. But somehow, she’d managed to master the kitchen. Every meal was a wonder. Pork chops, steak, meatloaf, fried chicken. Potatoes of every style…mashed, fried, scalloped, boiled, baked, braised. And each dinner she served up included two vegetables topped with butter, a fresh green salad, a slice of bread, and a home-baked dessert. I sometimes wondered if she had actually been trained in an army barracks, by the quantities she put out.

When it came to baking an apple pie, crockery bowls filled high with peeled apples would be sliced, dusted with sugar and cinnamon, and by day’s end, eight pies would be cooling on every windowsill. My mother felt that, if you were going to go through all that trouble to bake a pie, why stop at just one? That same principle applied to donuts. I can still see her dropping dozens of circles of dough she’d punched out into pots of gurgling hot oil as they floated to the surface, a golden brown. And when it came to Christmas cookies, she made so many that there were still leftovers the following Christmas!

My father was also a great cook. After leaving home at seventeen, he hopped in a boxcar and rode the rails for a couple of years. Hobo jungles and fellow travelers had taught him the fine art of what he called, ‘making something from nothing’. He was like a magician. He would open the refrigerator, grab a handful of this, a bit of that. He’d slice and chop, tossing ingredients into a sizzling pan. A splash of catsup, a pinch of salt, and… presto! A delicious meal would appear before your eyes. He simply called it ‘slumgullion’.

Dad wasn’t big on fancy names. He called his chicken chow mien “Chop Suey”. He called his beef and vegetables “Chop Suey”. In fact, anything he used soy sauce on he called “Chop Suey”. He would labor for hours over a pot of steaming soup. The perfect amount of fish, the right amount of potato, a splash of white wine, a hint of saffron, thyme, and cloves. Then he’d carry his masterpiece to the dinner table and ask if anyone wanted a bowl of ‘fish head soup’. Who knew we were actually slurping up Bouillabaisse?

And each dish that he presented had to be adorned with some sort of garnish. Dad loved garnishes, and wouldn’t serve a pancake unless it had a sprig of parsley or a radish carved into a rosebud next to it.

With Betty Crocker as a mother and Chef Boyardee as a father, learning to cook was inevitable.

Mom would say, “If you don’t learn to cook, you’ll wind up marrying some girl for her pot roast.”

So, I began simply. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

“Just the right amount of peanut butter,” my mother would warn.

“Not too much jelly,” Pop would coach. “And a nice orange slice on the side.”

Next came tuna salad.

“Just a touch of mayonnaise,” Mom would say.

“A pinch of dill,” Pop would add, “and a sprig of mint on the side.”

It wasn’t long before I started to come up with recipes of my own. Hot dogs and lima beans with pineapple preserves. An egg and lettuce omelet smothered in French dressing. Fish sticks and carrots simmered in a fine peanut butter and jelly sauce. There were some very creative concoctions.

Over the years, I plowed through dozens of cookbooks, exercised my share of trial-and-error, and with the encouragement and helpful hints of my folks, I actually turned out to be a pretty good cook. Mom was pleased to know that I did, in fact, marry for love. What I can’t help but wonder is…did my wife marry me for my pot roast?

One comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *