When we were kids, Mother wasn’t an adventuresome cook. Oh sure, she made pâte à choux crab puffs, her one specialty, for bridge parties, but we weren’t allowed to eat them. Part of the reason was Mother and Daddy were famously picky eaters.
We didn’t eat lamb, cucumbers, squash, cabbage, kale, chard, cauliflower, broccoli, and a litany of other foods that Mother hated. Cheeses, including sour cream, yogurt, cottage cheese, buttermilk, and anything containing them, were also off the menu; they disgusted Daddy.
For dinner, Mother served a rotating selection of basic American fare. We ate fried chicken, barbecued chicken, roast chicken, chicken and dumplings, and chicken noodle soup. Pork chops, pot roast, ham, corned beef, and grilled chuck steak were our primary meats. My younger sister and I surreptitiously traded food under the table to get rid of things one of us liked and the other didn’t; we were required to maintain good standing in the clean plate club.
Speaking of chuck steak, I got kicked out of high school home ec over it. The teacher said it was too tough to grill and had to be braised. Insulted, I said my favorite meal was grilled chuck steak, my family ate it all the time, and it was wonderful, especially when seasoned with just a little Johnnie’s Dock Seasoning Salt.
I wondered aloud if the teacher was qualified to teach home ec if she didn’t know about grilling chuck steak. The teacher thought I was smart-mouthing and sent me to the principal’s office. I patiently explained to the principal I already knew how to cook and didn’t need no stinking home ec classes. Whether it was my persuasiveness, or the teacher’s relief at having me out of the class, the school agreed to waive my mandatory home ec requirement. As for grilled chuck steak, I haven’t eaten it since I left home.
When Mother and Daddy went out, which they did pretty much every Friday and Saturday night, my younger sister and I ate “modern” food: Swanson’s TV Dinners and Pot Pies, Chung King Chicken Chow Mein, Campbell’s Chicken Noodle Soup, Kraft’s Macaroni and Cheese, or Chef Boyardee Pizza Mix. If we were lucky, Mother made us hot dogs in a Bisquick blanket before leaving.
After her children left home, Mother’s cooking changed dramatically. It started with the Galloping Gourmet and her success making his Chicken Kiev for dinner parties. She experimented with different flavors and interesting spices. From this era, I have vivid memories of her Crab and Scotch Soup, which she loved enough to send me the recipe (that soup was partially responsible for me driving off a cliff, a story for another day).
By the time I brought my new husband home to meet the parents, Mother was cooking food inspired by her and Daddy’s regular trips to Spain, Portugal, France, and Italy. Daddy’s favorites on the new lineup were Vitello Tonnato and Choucroute Garnie. They were usually served when we visited.
When Daddy died, Mother sold the house and moved into senior housing. Downsizing from five bedrooms with a full basement to a small one-bedroom apartment took a lot of effort. She pressed belongings on anyone and everyone. I ended up with Mother’s recipe folder, including a small black notebook I’d never before seen.
The notebook contained a journal of menus Mother served at dinner parties; she started keeping it after we left home. She included guests’ names and wines served. After I was over being impressed with Mother’s journaling discipline, I wondered why she never cooked like that when her kids were at home. I asked. Mother’s response: “I had four kids, a husband, and a house. There wasn’t time to cook anything other than the basics.” Hard to argue.
The other day, thinking about Mother and Daddy’s food quirks inspired me to make Mother’s Choucroute Garnie recipe (slightly modified, of course, since I’m constitutionally incapable of sticking to a precise recipe). It’s perfect party fare for cold weather. She braised sauerkraut to make it tender, cooked it with onion and apple for sweetness, added wine for tang, and precooked meats to remove some of their fat. It’s quite delicious and makes wonderful leftovers. Mother advises making it a day ahead of company dinners for completely stress-free entertaining.