Nearly two years ago, my mother died. She was just shy of 83. For the most part, we had a terrible relationship (as she had with all of her four sons). But that part of the story is more than likely for a book on surviving a dysfunctional parent. My mother was a talented cook and a fine baker, and it was her cooking that drew me to a life-long love of feeding family and friends. It started at the age of nine, when my mother was delayed returning home from an appointment in the city. She had planned on making spaghetti and meat sauce for dinner, a recipe I had seen her make innumerable times. I told the babysitter that I would be preparing dinner for her and my brothers. Apparently it was a success and I've been cooking ever since. My father disappeared from our lives shortly thereafter, and as my mother assumed the duties of providing for her sons, so too did my responsibilities of feeding us. This meant hot oatmeal or farina or puffed wheat or rice for breakfast nearly every day (we all took turns with breakfast, and making bag lunches). Lunch meant tuna salad or peanut butter and jelly or bologna sandwiches with mustard (no cheese--we couldn't afford it, some cookies or an apple). Dinner was a rotational round of a variety of meals. Oven-fried chicken, meatloaf, Spam with onions and scalloped potatoes, knockwurst and beans, fish sticks, Kraft macaroni and cheese, fried liver and onions (we were the only kids we knew who liked liver), a baked dish my mother called American Spaghetti and meat sauce, creamed chipped beef--food very much a standard of the times. Weekends, things got a little fancier--a pot roast or a long-simmered chuck roast with home-made noodles, stuffed flank steak, roast chicken, chicken stew with dumplings, or a glorious roasted loin of pork on the bone. Sometimes pan-fried shoulder lamb chops. On occasion lasagna (my mother used cottage cheese because it was cheaper than ricotta), very rarely, a rib roast or for holidays, a roasted leg of lamb. Mom generally made these fancier dinners, but just as often, so did I.
Both of our mothers prepared Stuffed Cabbage, Oven-Fried Chicken, and Fruit Cakes. Mother's fruit cake was edible (I loathe fruit cake). She started it in October and by Christmas, those cakes were so filled with brandy or bourbon, you could blow up the house. Since striking out on my own, I've never encountered Oven-Fried Chicken. While I have prepared Fried Chicken southern style, I don't think of it as an at-home recipe. What do you with all that leftover oil? It makes a mess of your kitchen. It also smells up your kitchen for days. Yet I haven't made oven fried chicken since my teens and I don't know why. I recall it as being one of my favorite dishes. Mother's recipe was simplicity itself. For one cut-up chicken (we never bought pre-cut parts) she would use 1 1/2 cups of flour, a good pinch of cayenne, two teaspoons of oregano or Italian seasoning, 1 1/2 teaspoons salt, and a teaspoons of ground pepper. All this was dumped into a brown paper bag and shaken to combine. The chicken was then added and shaken to coat placed on a platter covered with waxed paper. She would put a large baking pan into a hot oven with three tablespoons of Crisco to melt. The chicken would be added to the pan and baked about 1 hour and fifteen minutes with the chicken turned once to make sure it browned on both sides. It was simple and delicious--crunchy enough with the flour coating sticking to the chicken, which made gnawing on the bones a real pleasure. Doris has two recipes, a conventional one similar to my mother's, only using Bisquick instead of flour, and onion salt with no herbs or cayenne, and she cooked it at a higher temperature--425-degrees F. Her "Crunchy Baked Chicken uses crushed saltine crackers, grated cheese (no indication if this is parmesan, but I'm certain it is probably Kraft), 1/4 cup parsley (fresh or dried?). You melt two sticks of butter and dip the chicken pieces in the fat and then roll them in the crushed saltines. Any leftover butter is poured over the chicken in the baking pan and is baked for 1 1/4 hours at 350-degrees F.
These simpler recipes and memories have made me go back to my childhood and once again cook those recipes that I recall my mother making. Like many before her, my mother didn't leave recipes. I grabbed an index box full of recipes I found in her kitchen after she died, thinking, I would finally find out how she made those toothsome and thick noodles for her boiled beef, or her creamed mushrooms on toast for fancy meals. When I got home and opened the box, I was disappointed to find a number of recipes culled from women's magazines in the 70s, 80s and 90s--the decades after I had gone off on my own. The problem with these recipes is they display my mother's regression as a cook. She has three different recipes for Pumpkin Bread. There is a recipe from Stouffer's for a Cheese and Chile Beef Dip calling for 2 packages of Stouffer's frozen Creamed Chipped Beef, defrosted! Another for Popovers made with Wondra flour, and something horrifying called Favorite Banana Mallow Pudding (Jello-O Vanilla Flavor Pudding and Pie Filing, Vanilla wafers, bananas and Kraft Jet-Puffed Marshmallows! She never got over her preference for margarine over butter and Miracle Whip over mayonnaise (her macaroni salad was a recipe I could never enjoy eating). She would insist they were better than their superior counterparts.
As my talents as a cook began to overtake my mother's she began to get competitive about it. In my 20s, I will admit to taking on challenging and somewhat silly recipes. I remember a hazelnut dacquoise with a coffee buttercream filling that I made for a dinner party at my mother and step-father's home in the late 70s. Frankly the dacquoise was too sweet and the buttercream left a slick on the top of the inside of my mouth that seemed to stay there for a week afterwards. Everyone ate every spec of that cake, but it was the last time I would ever opt for something that sweet and cloying. But it left the door open to my mother to snip about my cooking. She hated the fact that I would debone a turkey at Thanksgiving, or when I sent her a recipe for a fruit crostata, her response was, why wouldI make a pie with only a bottom crust! I ignored the criticisms. I wasn't about to yell at my mother because my cooking threatened her. Her last husband's cooking offered them plenty of room for competitive contentiousness. My stepfather was a very good cook, and did a lot of catering, and for a number of years, was a prep-chef for Martin Yan's cooking school in California. As a couple, they took baking classes, and learned lots of cooking techniques. But his cooking was completely different than hers and arguments ensued.
So my mother's heyday as a home cook really was at its best when when brothers and I were kids. She made a lot of birthday cakes, and a really good chocolate loaf cake from a Hershey's cocoa box. We had her bread pudding and tapioca often and they were delicious and comforting. Mom also made good strawberry jam, and her potato salad was terrific, even if it was made with Miracle Whip. Mother did good picnic sides, including picked beets and eggs, a recipe I've just made for the first time. The recipe is different than my mother's--I recall onions in hers, but not cumin, fennel or mustard seeds in the recipe I prepared.
There are memories of my childhood meals that I'd like to forget. I'm never going to eat another Knockwurst in my life again, nor Spam with Onions and Potatoes, and Kraft Macoroni & Cheese is definitely out forever. Like other Moms, Mother made desserts with Jello, Junket and Mighty-Fine gelatin and pudding mixes, which all kids liked. I wouldn't go near them today and Kool-Aid will never occupy any space of any kitchen I'll ever use again.
Truth be told, my cooking is isn't that much different from my mother's. I've gotten all the fancy recipes out of my system. I've only cooked my way through part of THE ART OF FRENCH COOKING. I've always preferred Italian food over French cuisine. My weeknight fare is usually a piece of sautéed protein, with rice or potatoes and a slightly parboiled vegetable finished in the same pan with a bit of butter or olive oil, salt and pepper. I save more ambitious projects for dinner parties, but I still keep it simple.
This week I made a version of my mother's Oven-Fried Chicken and it was very good. Now I want to try both of Doris' versions. They say nostalgia ain't what it used to be. But maybe sometimes it is. I'm ready to start cooking my way through my mother's repertoire again, no for nostalgia, but because she made a lot of good food.
Pickled Eggs and Beets