Some of my earliest food memories are of the nightly dinners my mother devotedly prepared for our family. I say devotedly because I don’t think she loved preparing these meals. She loved us, though, and when I was a young child Mom faithfully had a hot meal on the table every night.
These meals were reasonably nutritious and more or less homemade. Many were the recipes that made up the culinary “soundtrack” of the 1970s: meatloaf covered in ketchup; chicken parts dredged in butter and bread crumbs or Parmesan cheese, then baked; thin bone-in pork chops baked atop scalloped potatoes. A concoction of Mandarin oranges, marshmallows and walnuts somehow got away with being called a salad, and so did another of cool whip, pistachio pudding and pineapple. What kid wouldn’t love that salad? And Mom could feel satisfied that she’d met the Basic Four.
These recipes were shared between several Moms in the neighborhood who were all, for the most part, devotedly preparing daily meals with the same goals. To this day I have index cards with recipes in the handwriting of many of the women of my childhood. I cherish those cards like rare pieces of art.
I also have cards with the handwriting of each of my grandmothers, equally cherished. Strangely, I have a set of Pyrex mixing bowls, if you could call it a set, that used to belong to my Grandma Izzie. When I use them, I feel something close to a metaphysical connection to her. I can still see her made-from-scratch lemon pudding against the white interior contrasted with the pale blue exterior of one of those bowls. And not only can I see it, I can smell it. Then, I see the merry, crinkled-nose face that Grandma Izzie often made when she talked to me, as if I were an adorable puppy or still a baby. “We’ll just skip the crust and eat the pudding now,” she’d whisper.
Grandma Izzie’s pot roast was to die for, and she delighted in the praise that it elicited from my father. “Izzy, you’ve outdone yourself! I didn’t think it could be better, but tonight!” And she blushed from the toes of her comfortable pink slippers to the tip of her snow white pixie. Still wearing her apron, she’d pop over to the oven to retrieve the meat plate and serve him another portion.
His mother, on the other hand, was all about the bake. My Grandmommie, a half German, half Irish, all Catholic woman, was known throughout the greater Cleveland area for everything from her Christmas cookies to her Sunday morning Kuchens and sweet rolls. No food should pass our lips on Sunday morning until we returned from Mass, not easy for growing kids. Grandmommie made it worth it, though, getting up in the wee hours to make yeast dough from scratch with which to assemble a variety of—usually buttery, often gooey, always scrumptious—treats.
Stereotypical to the era, my childhood was not populated with men showering “food love.” I have memories of my father using the gas grill at our Colorado home a few times a year, and my Grandpoppie fixing “steaks” on a hibachi-type grill once or twice. Never were these events terribly notable (other then that dad didn’t overcook everything and his father did). They certainly did not seem like extensions of emotional expression.
There are some times of preparing food together that shine bright and clear in my mind. I remember making chocolate chip cookies with my Mom and sister on winter, no-school snow days. More than once we spent our day off creaming margarine (remember margarine?) and sugar in a large orange bowl with a white leaf motif. At every stage, we’d sneak bits of “dough,” so much that we were lucky if the final product resembled cookies at all. But that didn’t matter. It was the three of us, Mom in good spirits and bending the rules a little, all of us knowing it was special time.
When I was about 13, Grandma Izzie decided to teach me how to make a single serving of homemade macaroni and cheese. A widow since her early fifties, she had become accustomed to cooking for one. This dish she made off the cuff. From her lessons, I learned how to make a roux and a béchamel sauce, sans the fancy names or pesky measuring cups and spoons. For a long time I, too, could pull off this dish without a hitch. Somewhere along the line, perhaps when I started attempting a serving for two or three, I lost the magic touch. Now, I’m forced to adhere to the science of the sauce, which is definitely more consistent and reliable, but nowhere near as romantic.
So this is a little bit of my roots in food. I became even more interested in everything food as I became an adult. An emphasis on nutrition and our pocketbooks became necessary early in marriage. We moved to Wisconsin (the land of cheese and beer) and found our middles growing plump while our pocketbooks grew lean.
During that time I learned that making my own food was both healthier and more economical than trying to buy things that were “quick” or “fast.” I learned to bake bread, which, nearly twenty years later, is one of my daughter’s favorite things both to eat and make together. I learned that I could buy a whole chicken and make it last for five days: boil, use the broth for vegetable noodle soup, use the breasts to make chicken salad, put the dark meat in a chicken pie. (And homemade chicken pie does not have to have any trans-fats, unnatural colorings or preservatives in it.)
When we had our daughter, I felt a fierce commitment to the family dinners and making sure they happened. Flashback to those 1970’s dinners. Regardless of their nutritional makeup, we sat down as a family and ate together most nights until I was a teenager. These dinners were saturated with drama. The facts of life were revealed and the stories of my parents — and their parents— were unveiled in 45 minute nightly increments. I heard about Basic Training and what they made you eat in the Army (and what they called it)! I watched my sister refuse to eat this stuff called beef stroganoff and a screaming match battle of wills that ended in her “running away” (to our backyard, I think) for a good half hour. I learned about more serious things, like the car crash that killed my grandfather, and the razor strap my other grandfather used on my father. It wasn’t all bad, though. Dinner was when we shared our successes of the day, as well — an A on a test, a winning audition, a goal at a soccer game. It was all at the table.
So what do I make of it all? Apparently, a blog! I’ve taken my family along as I have explored the complexities of our many relationships to food. Some things have worked, some things have not. My philosophy has become one of balance. One must have the Italian Cream Cake once in a while. So, we try to consistently prepare the foods we already know are good for us and, frankly, make us feel healthy, too. And we try to eat together as often as we can. If I could sum it up in one sentence, perhaps it would be this: It is better to have butter on your broccoli than to have no broccoli at all, but either way, eat your broccoli together!