A Life in Food: Eating and Cooking with Mother

Mother and Daddy, Young and in Love 1944

Mother and Daddy, Young and in Love 1944

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.

Mother and Daddy, Not So Young But Still in Love

Mother and Daddy, Not So Young but Still in Love 2008

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.

Mother's Menu Journal

Mother’s Menu Journal. Wine Tasting (Alsatian) & Choucroute Party for 20, December 12, 1981. Various Wines for Tasting: Reislings-French, German, California & Washington; Pinot Blanc; Gewurztraminers; Various Hors D’oeuvres. Dinner: Choucroute Garnie with Ham, Pork Chops, Polish, German Sausages, & Bratwurst; Boiled Potatoes; Various Mustards; Rolls & Butter; Tortoni with Dutch Butter Cookies; Coffee & Tea. Guests: Skis, Hudsons, Campanas, Wilburs, Downings, Haysletts, Ed L., Arlene Carter, Bogens, Deacons

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.

Digging into Choucroute Garnie

Digging into Choucroute Garnie

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.

Be sure to check out the recipes mentioned in this post:

 

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7 Responses to A Life in Food: Eating and Cooking with Mother

  1. What a great story! I want to get the crab puff recipe. So, was your mom part Greek?

    • Laurie Constantino says:

      Thanks Anna! The crab puffs are one of those recipes that never quite turns out for me. I haven’t tried it in years though, so maybe I’m ready to give it another go. My mom was half Polish and half Lithuanian. I’m not Greek at all. The Greek one is my husband to whom I’ve been married for nearly 30 years. Greek by osmosis??

  2. Great article, Laurie. I thought it was someone else’s at first, then saw the more recent photo of your parents and realized it was yours. How interesting that your mother broke out of the common place recipes and into a whole new world of eating! It reminded me of my mother–she didn’t like so many things, then there was cooking for the lowest common denominator. Lots of hamburger, tuna noodle casserole, and we ate round steak rather than chuck!

    • Laurie Constantino says:

      Thanks Kim! Your mom has an even better excuse than mine – 9 kids, plus her mother, all needing to be fed. Expensive and time-consuming if you try to do anything other than the basics. The best thing was Mother taught me how to cook when I was young. Definitely improved my life! Did you learn how to cook from your mom or did you teach yourself as a matter of necessity??

  3. I know what you mean!. I always say that I learned to cook out of self defense. My mother could only cook Italian food well, but unfortunately, she only cooked that once a week. I was almost 30 before I found out that steak could be good. I took over the cooking before I was in my teens so there would be somethinf edible.

  4. Enjoyed reading your blog and the family recipes. Love the pictures of your parents. And the notebook of recipes is a wonderful keepsake.

    • Laurie Constantino says:

      Thanks Beth! I also love the pictures of my parents, especially the one from the 40s. They look like babies!

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