The kitchen of the house I grew up in was nothing special. In fact, as I reconstruct it now in my mind’s eye, it was pretty limited. The counters were surfaced in that wretched tiny tile which was so hard to keep clean, the counter space was minimal as were the cupboards; and the stove was in a bad location, too far from the counters and sink, with no place near it to set anything down. The refrigerator was one of those old ones with a freezing compartment inside it rather than a separate freezer, which required defrosting on a weekly basis. Even defrosted, there was just about enough room in it for the ice cube trays, a couple of packages of frozen vegetables, and maybe half a gallon of ice cream. The ice cube trays were a necessity in Houston, and for the first few years we lived there, we didn’t even have air conditioning.
My mother made breakfast for a family of five every day. She made dinner just about every day because we rarely ate out. She ironed the family’s laundry in that steam oven of a kitchen, year ’round. In fact, when I picture her in that house, she’s in the kitchen. Oh, she also sewed, laying everything out on the dining room table and putting it away again in time for supper. She typed or wrote at her desk in the living room, because she was a huge correspondent her whole life, and she gardened. But I mostly think of her in the kitchen.
Breakfast of bacon, eggs, and toast, sometimes French toast, was served six mornings a week; pancakes and waffles were served on Sundays. Real maple syrup was a treat we received as a Christmas present from a friend’s farm in Massachusetts; the rest of the time it was pancake syrup. Mom was frugal.
She took advantage of what was on sale. Roast beef was rare; I’d request it for my birthday dinner. That was a family tradition, the birthday person planning the menu. She’d make an eye round roast beef (a cut I now know is nothing special; it’s too lean to be juicy, and lacks flavor anyway) with gravy and put canned B in B (“Broiled in Butter”) mushrooms in the gravy. Accompanied by mashed potatoes, it was the best dinner ever.
We ate pork chops, fried chicken, ground beef casseroles with cabbage, chicken-fried steak, 7-bone chuck roasts braised with canned tomatoes and onions, beef liver with onions and bacon (only the onions and bacon made the chewy liver edible), soups, soufflés made with cheese, pressure-cooked chicken, or canned salmon. Mom made the most of all the bacon grease left over from breakfast, using it for cottage-fried potatoes and onions. Oh, the smell wafting outside the kitchen window when she was making those – it was hard to wait for supper!
Our neighbor had pear trees and a farm outside the city limits. They tried raising rabbits to sell for meat, but Houston wasn’t ready to embrace bunnies as a food source, so they shared the largesse with us. We had rabbit served in many ways; I particularly remember rabbit paprikash made with sour cream. The pears were small and hard, but no way was perfectly good food going to be wasted – Mom pickled them with sugar, vinegar, and cloves and canned them. Years later when I asked her for the recipe, she barely remembered having made them.
We weren’t keen on eggplant, zucchini, or summer squash. For disguise, she added onions, canned tomatoes, and cheese. Years later, when I tried the same trick on my daughter, I discovered that she didn’t want her food dressed up – she wanted it bare, so as to know what was in it! Sorry, Mom, that was one thing I learned from you that didn’t help me much at dinner time.
Dinner wasn’t complete without dessert. Cakes and pies were homemade. I remember German chocolate cake with brown sugar, coconut, and pecans… pineapple upside down cake… apple, rhubarb, mincemeat, pumpkin, and my brother’s favorite, cherry pie. My favorite was black bottom pie, a pecan pie with a layer of chocolate on the bottom. And how could I forget pecan pie, that Texas stand-by? Sometimes dessert was canned fruit, sherbet, or ice cream, but she made cake and pie as often as not.
When I was home for lunch, we ate together. Her favorite open-faced sandwich was cheese on toast. There were always cheddar and Swiss cheese in the fridge, Edam or Gouda if a friend had returned from a trip to Europe with some as a special gift. She taught me to love liverwurst, sardines and smoked kippers on toast, and for a real treat, she’d open a can of anchovies rolled with capers or anchovy paste. My larder now wouldn’t be complete without these things.
She let me make messes in her kitchen. It started with cookies and cake mixes, and graduated to her buying things like squid and letting me cook it when I expressed an interest. She marveled the summer I went to Girl Scout camp and came home able to put together a meal, and let me show off my new skills at dinner time.
You know what the funny thing is? She didn’t have a lot of cookbooks, and only a minimum of kitchen paraphernalia. The only appliance I remember was a hand mixer she received as a Christmas gift one year. Mom always said she wasn’t much of a cook; she didn’t enjoy cooking. When I told her that I wanted more than anything to make a living teaching people about food and how to cook, there was a measurable pause before she asked, “Couldn’t you think of something more interesting to do?”
No, Mom, I couldn’t. I’m sure it wasn’t what you intended, but I love being in the kitchen. Nothing gives me more satisfaction than making someone happy with food or passing along my knowledge and skills. And I think I know why. Love you, Mom, and miss you — Happy Mother’s Day!