“I read recipes the same way I read science fiction. I get to the end and say to myself, “Well, that’s not ever going to happen.” Rita Rudner
“The only thing that will make a souffle fall is if it knows you’re afraid of it.” James Beard
“If you can boil it, steam it or braise it. you can pressure cook it!” Laura Pazzaglia
I ran into Christine, a childhood friend, at a Jungle Jim’s cooking class. We hadn’t seen each other in years, and we briefly reminisced about our parents’ card club, when the kids ate in the kitchen, throwing peas and the like, while the parents enjoyed their Manhattans in the dining room. I told Christine that I loved to cook and went to these classes all the time.
“Really?” she said. “Funny you like cooking so much. Your mother sure didn’t. I still remember that cake . . .”
Well, Christine couldn’t possibly remember that cake, because the infamous cake was baked before she was born. It seems unfair that my mom is still catching flak for this cake sixty-five years after she iced it.
I maintain that my mother wasn’t a bad cook; she was just indifferent about food, the preparation of it and the consumption of it. This is not to say that she didn’t enjoy eating. She all but licked the plate at her last meal, meat loaf I think, that she ate perched on the side of her hospital bed. She liked lobster bisque from Red Lobster, corn-on-the-cob from roadside stands, liver and onions wherever she could get it, and my lasagna. But she didn’t love food, at least the way I do. She didn’t seem to crave it and, for the most part, adhered to the annoying, sensible adage “eat to live.”
My mother passed up dessert for most of her first seventy years. She was always watching her figure, and what a figure it was, but after she had a heart attack, she decided that it was high time to cut loose, and, every now and again, she’d eat ice cream or cheesecake. (Never chocolate; my mother and I didn’t like chocolate, which made us two people in a very small club.) She seemed to have changed her mind about eating to live, and adopted a new game plan: eat dessert first (before you die).
For at least the last thirty years of her life, she ate the same boring breakfast (homemade yogurt that was as sour as camel’s piss, and a piece of toast) and a boring lunch (Slim Fast). I suggested she vary the fare–maybe have an omelet for breakfast, a piece of baked fish for lunch–which would still be healthy and low-calorie. She responded, “What I eat is easy, and I don’t have to think about it.” I could never understand this because, in my mind, few things are more worth fussing over than food.
It really isn’t fair to label her a bad cook; she was just indifferent. She certainly did not lack talent. I think my mother could have done anything she set her mind to. She could have been a chef in a five-star restaurant if she wanted, but other things interested her more.
I think my mother could have knit a car. She once knitted me Barbie clothes for Christmas using needles as thin as toothpicks. (To this day, I regret not appreciating those clothes enough and wanting, instead, the black sequin hooker-ish gown you could buy at Woolworth’s.) The last months of her life she was on a mission to knit scarves and mittens for every cold child in Cincinnati, and her needles and a half-used skein of yarn are still in a bowl in her living room.
She made clothes (pinafores edged in rickrack; coats with matching muffs; jumpers with gingham blouses) for African-American American Girl doll knock-offs and donated them to the Salvation Army. She made clothes for the ceramic goose that stood sentry on her porch, a costume for every season: a Pilgrim’s outfit, a wedding dress (to wear on my parents’ anniversary), a red-white-and-blue frock for Fourth of July.
And Mom was just so darned clever. Way before the idea was marketed, my mother saved hotel shower caps to cover bowls of potato salad and cole slaw. She taught me to cut crusts from Wonder bread for strata with an electric knife. She sewed two halves of pantyhose together to extend their life. She engineered elaborate organizational structures for her drawers and closets with box lids and paper towel rolls. She was an artisan with a glue gun, a surgeon with a needle, a wizard with a pinking shears.
But she was neither enthusiastic nor imaginative in the kitchen. Salad at dinner was a wedge of Iceberg lettuce (before it was fashionable) dressed with a glob of lumpy homemade Thousand Island dressing. Sometimes there was green Jello with canned pears. Slices of Spam adorned with canned pineapple rings quite regularly graced our dinner table.
There were always vegetables, though I’ve managed to forget the details about those, but she understood before most people did that green vegetables should not be cooked until gray.
She was a fearless magician with the pressure cooker, from which she ladled green beans and knuckles of cottage ham, or sauerkraut and links of mett.
Perhaps everything would have tasted better if it had not been served on Melmac dishes. We had a set back in the sixties in trendy colors of orange, turquoise, and black. I favored the turquoise plates, and dreaded black days.
Mom tried, though, and she put fairly nutritious, if only slightly delicious, meals on the table every day. I remember my brother Frisbee-ing burnt pancakes off the balcony rather than eating them. I did like our Saturday night wieners and beans meals, though, which consisted of pork and beans from a can, dressed up with catsup, mustard, brown sugar, and circles of processed god-only-knows-what floating in the brick red gravy. Mom heated it in the dented square saucepan and then dished it out on dinner plates. The presentation was lacking artistically and pragmatically; I remember chasing the beans around with my fork.
Don’t believe Christine, though. My mother wasn’t a bad cook. Oh, anyone can drag out a story about a mishap with a cake that occurred decades ago. Or an anecdote about the Christmas Mom served us one-year-old strata from her freezer. Or that winter she stored limburger cheese in the rafters of the attic, but forgot about it until the first warm summer day.
At least she made an effort. She was like her mother, Mootsie. (We weren’t supposed to call her “Grandma” because she fancied herself too young.) She wasn’t an enthusiastic cook, either, but she had her specialties. I loved watching Grandma Mootsie make egg drop soup, the swirls of beaten eggs transforming, almost instantaneously, into white feathers in the broth. She made a chili with ground beef, tomato soup, and chili powder, and two secret ingredients, vinegar and sugar. One dish she made better than everyone else at church was German potato salad using her mother’s recipe. She was famous for it, and she made it for Women’s Guild luncheons. I can duplicate her salad, but I rarely do because of the ingredients of the sauce: bacon grease from a pound of bacon, a stick (or two) of real butter, a half cup of sugar, “some” vinegar, and mustard. Death by knife and fork.
My mother also had her own specialties, dishes I thought were toothsome. She figured out what she could make easily, what was foolproof. She taught me how to make chicken and rice casserole, a dish she said could win a husband and impress a mother-in-law. In this dish, like in most of Mom’s culinary masterpieces, Campbell’s soup played a prominent role. I hope you, dear reader, are not a snob about such pedestrian ingredients. Just try this recipe and see if my mom wasn’t right about its deliciousness. It did win my husband and impress my mother-in-law, by the way. SEE RECIPE BELOW
Then there was beef burgundy. Okay, six ingredients, five of them soups. But it starts with an expensive cut of beef, Tri-Tip. It is so unbelievably easy, and it has such unexceptional ingredients, that you can hardly believe that it’s good, but it is delectable. Proof-positive: my husband loves it, and he’s like Mikey, he hates everything. SEE RECIPE BELOW
Every Christmas Eve we had Impossible Taco Pie. Yes, it’s a recipe from Bisquick, but it is quite tasty, especially served with my mom’s famous cole slaw. ( I asked her once how she made the cole slaw. “You shred cabbage with a food processor, then stir in Marzetti’s slaw dressing.”) CLICK HERE TO SEE RECIPE
Mom hosted the annual family Christmas breakfast. She was always nervous about cooking for my aunts and uncles and cousins, but she had an invariable menu that she had mastered. The centerpiece of the meal was a fluffy, cheesy strata. There was no soup in it, but plenty of butter, cheese, sausage, and mustard. Oh, and Wonder Bread. One month before she died, my daughter and I went to her house and made it under her tutelage. Allison typed all the steps into her phone. I’ve tried to recreate the strata three times, and it’s just not as good as Mom made. SEE RECIPE BELOW
Mom made tender, succulent pork chops in a covered skillet with two cans of Campbell’s, but I don’t know which two. Last week I asked my dad’s for my mother’s recipe box. It seems she had abandoned her recipe box and organized her recipe instead in a binder. I searched through that binder and found recipes I am quite sure my mother never executed, things like Cream of Peanut Soup and James Michener’s Gazpacho, but there were others that excited sensory memories that transported me right back to the Formica table in my childhood home in Finneytown. But, alas, no recipe for pork chops.
My mom may have been an indifferent cook, and at times (like when she baked that infamous cake) a careless one, but she knew something important about food which I will illustrate with three anecdotes.
1. Fifty years ago, my friend (my only friend), Linda Cox, spent one Saturday in my basement with me working on a school project. We painted a backdrop, on what I don’t know, of a Spanish scene. Using our Compton’s Encyclopedias, we wrote a script pretending we were tourists, incorporating the required elements of the assignment. At lunchtime, my mother brought down two plates that looked like they had come from Shillito’s Tea Room: ham sandwiches, each cut in four triangles and speared with toothpicks; chips, pickles, and olives. I think there may have been soda to drink. I can’t begin to tell you how out of the ordinary such a refined lunch was in our household. I was so grateful that my mother understood how important this meeting was to me.
2. About twenty years ago, Rick, the kids, and I went on a Mediterranean cruise and invited my parents along. It was a wonderful trip—our first time in Europe—but those three August days we spent in Rome were scorching. We lived on gelato, eating it with tiny spoons as we strolled from one piazza to another. That September on my birthday, my mother had scooped out lemons and filled them with lemon sorbet, and she even served them with little spoons. (It is likely that she brought the ones we had used in Italy back with her.) All of us sitting at their dining room table, eating tiny bites of the sorbet, reminded us of our magical rip.
3. One June afternoon in 2012, my mother called to tell me she had just learned she had bone cancer. Rick came home to find me inconsolable, sobbing and vomiting. My mother said she didn’t need me to come over, and I would have made very poor company. At about 5:00 that night she called, as if nothing was amiss, and invited us over to share meatloaf with them. I somehow pulled myself together and we ate with my parents. I told Mom I felt disloyal to be hungry and enjoying her dinner. I believe that my mother’s invitation was to help me, not her. She knew I needed to be near her.
No, Christine, my mother wasn’t a bad cook, even if she did ice a two layer cake with a potholder between the layers. She knew food was important for a lot of reasons. She was indifferent about cooking, but she was not indifferent about me.
Copyright © 2015 Sandy Lingo, All Rights Reserved
Here are some entertaining videos about cooking:
1 ½ cups regular (not instant) rice
3 cups water
Uncooked chicken pieces, with bone and skin still on (I use 3 breasts, then enough drumsticks to fill the rest of the pan.) You want as little of the rice showing as possible.
2 cans cream of chicken or cream of mushroom soup
Salt, pepper, paprika to season
Spray a 9 X 13 pan with Pam.
Pour regular rice, uncooked, on bottom of pan. Add 3 cups water. Lay raw chicken pieces on top, pieces touching Sprinkle with salt, pepper, paprika. Sprinkle one envelope of Lipton onion soup on top.
Then spoon two cans of cream of mushroom or cream of chicken soup on top.
Bake 350 degrees for one hour, covered with foil.
Bake 350 degrees for one hour, uncovered.
5-6 pounds beef Tri-tips cut into cubes
1 can tomato soup
1 can cream of celery soup
1 can cream of mushroom soup
1 pkg. dry onion soup mix
¾ cup burgundy wine
Optional: Pearl onions and mushrooms
Place beef in roasting pan. Mix soups and wine and pour over the beef. Stir. Cover the pan and cook for about 4 hours in 300 degree oven. Stir occasionally.
Add pearl onions and/or mushrooms in the last half hour.
Serve over noodles or rice.
- Grease 9 X 13 pan.
- Line with pieces of white bread, crusts removed.
- Blend one stick butter with ¼ cup yellow mustard and paint bread.
- Add 2 pounds of cooked browned pork sausage
- Line again with white bread
- Finish painting bread with yellow mustard/butter mix.
- Blend 6 eggs, 2 cups milk, salt, pepper, one teaspoon Worcestershire sauce. Pour over top.
- Add 2 cups extra sharp grated cheddar
- Refrigerate overnight
- Bake at 350 degrees for 45 – 60 minutes. Cover with foil for last 15 minutes. Let set before cutting.