Friday, December 22, 2006

What My Mother Cooked

In comparison to my father, my mother was a great cook. At this distance across the years, it’s hard to know if that’s because my mother was such a very good cook, or because my father was such a very bad one, or something in between. I suspect the last.

I remember my mother being something of a “phase” or “fad” cook. Not that she followed popular trends in food and cooking, but that she had her own. Because she worked, we almost never had dinner as a family. And I never did drugs, or was a discipline problem or any of the other negative things that kids are supposed to be more likely to do if they don’t eat dinner with their parents. My grades were bad, but my therapist and I figured out the reason for that, and it had nothing to do with who I ate dinner with.

However, on weekends my mother would cook. Not huge batches of things that we could reheat, but she’d make dinners for us to have as a family. What we actually ate tended to go in cycles. These must have been Sunday night dinners, because every Saturday night we got take out pizza from a place called the Chick’n Bucket. I think their quality must have gone downhill at some point, because when I got older it was Chinese food from a place just up the street that was, of all things, a kosher deli and a Chinese restaurant (Mr. L’s and Sun).

But what my mother made was more conventional food. For years and years steak and baked potato, with a green salad with a Dijon vinaigrette was a standing meal. The steaks were cooked on a big oval stainless steel platter of sorts, covered with foil for easy clean up. That platter was such a fixture in my childhood that when I moved out on my own and didn’t have it, I wasn’t sure just what else one would use to cook a steak. The potato was always served with butter and salt—never sour cream. The salad always had cherry tomatoes sliced in half, and Pepperidge Farm seasoned croutons in it. As much as I wish it were something else (macaroni and cheese, or chocolate chip cookies or something), I think this is probably my ultimate comfort food. I wish it were something else only because if I were asked to list my favorite foods based on taste, these things wouldn’t be high on the list. For instance, I much prefer mashed potatoes to baked. So be it.

Sometimes my mom would make a big pot of spaghetti and meat sauce and we’d have that for dinner. She didn’t make tomato sauce from scratch. She bought Ragu and “tarted it up,” as she used to say. She’d sauté onions and ground beef together, and then add the sauce and heat it up. She served it over plain old Muller’s spaghetti. I don’t remember ever getting a salad, or even garlic bread with it. It was spaghetti and meat sauce for dinner.

For awhile she made a honey and mustard glazed chicken that she found in a cookbook put out by the Walters Gallery in Baltimore, MD. I think it probably called for bone-in chicken breasts, but she made it with boneless skinless ones. This was when boneless skinless breasts were just becoming available, and there weren’t really that many recipes that used them. She must have modified this one to accommodate the boneless ones. This would also have been before honey mustard was available everywhere, including the 7-11, so mixing honey and mustard together and using it as a glaze for the chicken was novel. She always served this with plain white rice. I don’t recall what the vegetable was, but I’m sure there was one. It would have been an afterthought in our house, anyway. Vegetables pretty generally were.

She went through a fairly lengthy flirtation with something she called a Dutch Baby. The only reason I can see for this is that she had gotten a Le Creuset skillet that would accommodate such a thing. The skillet must have been 18” across, and was white enameled cast iron. The batter was a cross between a pancake batter and a popover batter. It made a huge puffy bready thing that was served with maple syrup and link sausages. The Breakfast For Dinner concept. I never understood why my mother was so taken with the Dutch Baby. Since then I’ve seen dozens of recipes for what is essentially a Dutch Baby, but it’s usually called a German pancake or something along those lines.

Welsh Rarebit over English muffins, again served with link sausages was another popular dinner that would show up regularly for a little while and then fade. My mother never made the rarebit sauce—it was always Stouffer’s out of a box. I have no idea if they even still make it (doubt it). My father used to tell a story about a recently divorced male friend who invited another recently divorced male friend over for dinner and served Stouffer’s Welsh Rarebit. The host dished up two plates of cheese sauce. His guest looked at it and said “Is this it? Isn’t there supposed to be something with it?” and the host said “This is all that was in the box…”

At some point on a business trip to New York City, my mother went to an Italian restaurant in the East Village and was served a pasta dish of sausage and tomatoes. When she got home she decided to replicate it, and the pasta with sausage and tomatoes phase began. Really it was very simple—cooked Italian sausage sliced up, sautéed with some onions and a can of diced tomatoes served with cooked penne and a sprinkle of chopped parsley. It was a nice change from Dutch Babies and frozen Welsh Rarebit, but even it got old after a few months.

For fancy dinners my mother always made Beef Stroganoff. I don’t know where she got the recipe, but she always served it over egg noodles, and usually with green beans on the side. Canned green beans, if I had to guess. My mother was a big fan of canned produce, favoring it over frozen. Or fresh, if memory serves.

What I do not remember my mother making is anything sweet. No cookies, cakes, pies. She had what she called a “fat tooth.” She could eat potato chips with French onion dip, Fritos with bean dip, hot dogs, and cheese and crackers by the pound, but she could leave the sweets alone. In fact, mostly I don’t remember her cooking and eating, so much as assembling and snacking. Her idea of a relaxing afternoon was to sit on the couch eating Sour Cream & Onion potato chips out of the bag and reading a book.

So that pretty well sums up the foods of my childhood. The only other thing I remember eating was hamburger patties with cheese on them (no bun), instant mashed potatoes, and canned beets, or a ham steak with a sweet sauce with raisins in it. Those were the meals my father provided on a regular basis.

I often wish as an adult that I’d been exposed to more foods as a child, because I might have discovered sooner many of the things I now love. But then I realize that that’s probably not the case, because our next door neighbors were Syrian, so I was introduced to some unusual dishes as a child (unusual for that time, anyway). Actually, the woman was an American who had married a Syrian Baptist minister. But she made all the traditional Middle Eastern foods that are now so overexposed—hummus, pitas, tabbouleh. I was served those things years before anyone could go buy a tub of roasted red pepper hummus at Safeway. And I didn’t like them. In fact, in many cases I refused to try them. So I guess I’m looking back from my adult palate, as it were, and wishing my childhood palate had gotten more of a chance to try different things, but it really wouldn’t have come to anything much, I don’t think. I would have turned up my nose at a greater variety of unusual foods, instead of at just a small selection of them.

No comments: