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Apr 10

The women in your family share more than recipes

My mother, my daughters, my stepdaughter, daughter-in-law and sister-in-law have all influenced what and how I cook. This fact makes cooking so much more special, so filled with memories, so infused with affection, that the process is not a chore, but a true pleasure.

My mother was thrifty (a child of the Great Depression, raised by a no-nonsense mother who had to feed seven children), practical, intent on providing good nutrition, not particularly adventurous, but serving diverse dishes. She cut recipes out of magazines, newspapers, jotted them down on scraps of paper, all taped into notebooks or hand-written on 3 X 5 cards and stuffed into a recipe box. She kept discontinued library recipe books, adding them to her collection. She prized Canadian author, Edna Staebler’s Old Order Mennonite recipe books as well as her sister-in-law’s publications of recipes that featured familiar foods from Kitchener-Waterloo, in Canada, where Mom was born and raised. I still use these books, the pages stained and marked, dog-eared and falling open to my favorites.

Not everything she made for dinner was enjoyable, though. “Eat your liver!” she would admonish when we were growing up. Tending to overcook it, that liver was not an enjoyable item. My older brother and I deftly concealed pieces inside our metal milk cups, pretending that we had eaten all the dried-out washrag morsels. Ugh. We thought we were pulling the wool over my mother’s eyes, but hardly.

Snacks before dinner consisted of a piece of raw turnip, a wedge of head lettuce, a carrot or a cup of raisins. No sweets. No crackers. No soda pop. We rarely got Kool-Aid. Each morning the tablespoon of cod liver oil had a taste that I burped up for the rest of the day. When Mom discovered mint-flavored cod liver oil, it was a whole new adventure in taste that stayed with me until after bedtime.

She enjoyed making Italian food, since my grandfather was from Calabria, in southern Italy. Her mother was German and Polish, so sauerkraut rounded out our menu regularly. As a family, we went strawberry and raspberry picking, and frozen berries, homemade jelly (with the paraffin wax on the top of the sealed jars), and fresh berry pies were forthcoming. We would head for the markets and bring back bushels of corn on the cob that had to be husked and then blanched and frozen, along with huge sacks of green beans that had to be French-cut before being sealed in bags for the freezer. She grew her own tomatoes, green ones ripening on her windowsill. Varieties of yellow and green beans trailed up the string supports in her garden, alongside the carrots, beets, lettuces and onions. Mom loved her pomegranate tree that grew in the back yard at their winter home in Arizona, making jelly every year. We still ceremoniously put the same unopened jar of it on our table every Christmas, and with it came the memories of Mom and those pomegranates.

We were always forced to try something new, including the eggplant and the dandelion greens salad. Not my favorites, although the beef tongue was a treat, believe it or not. This was a very economical cut of meat back then and can be found in some grocery stores, but it costs a whole lot more these days. Her chicken cacciatore, meat loaf, roast lamb or beef, roasted potatoes and corn (soggy from being frozen on the cob) stand out in my memory. Dessert was canned or fresh fruit. Maybe some ice cream. And a pie or a cake on Sundays. I don’t ever recall having store-bought donuts or the like in the house growing up.

I think of my mother with great affection when I prepare anything remotely resembling her food. Her coffee parties, which always featured a simple dessert such as pound cake and whipped cream, were full of laughter and people smoking cigarettes. Whenever I make pound cake, cut up strawberries, make a pie, or whip up some cream for my guests, I hear her laughter inside my head, and a smile creeps onto my face. I feel her presence. She taught me to try everything and to feed healthy food to my family. And to never waste anything.

My daughter Anna is a foodie. She taught me how to roast a red bell pepper over the gas burner of the stove. She introduced me to slowing down in the kitchen in order to finely chop the fresh herbs, dice the sweet potatoes and make a gently simmered sauce. Organic ingredients take up a large part of her cabinet space. Gourmet coffee beans ground daily are a must-have. Trader Joe’s is on her weekly car-route. We’re always sharing recipes. I look forward to traditional holiday dinners at her home because there is very little traditional about it, just great flavors and new combinations, and always with a great bottle of wine.

Daughter Erin worked for several years at Let’s Dish!, located in the Twin Cities, and where members come together to prepare healthy family dinners in a centralized commercial kitchen, using pre-measured ingredients, under supervision of staff members like Erin. They are provided cooking preparation directions and a week’s worth of food. At the end of the session, they leave with their packaged meals, all ready to freeze at home, and thaw in the refrigerator when leaving for work. After a busy day, these meals can be cooked quickly. Daughter Erin believes in economical meals that are easily prepared. No cutting, dicing and chopping, because she had a hungry husband and kids ready to eat. Get it done. She taught me to appreciate being organized and to keep it simple. She does give me grief when I prepare dinner with as many as four vegetables, and I laugh when I hear her voice in my head.

Daughter-in-law Molly knows how to put on a production, rounded out by a fantastic dessert (or several to choose from) for a major family get-together. She is always ready to jump in and help when visiting us, although granddaughter Kira now competes for her time when we’re prepping the feast. Her Seafood Dump combines lots of great food and a simple way to serve the lobster claws, sea scallops giant shrimp, boiled corn on the cob and boiled potatoes, all cooked in big pots on the stove—just dump it out on a table that is covered with big sheets of plastic. Then dig in, truly family-style! She taught me to not be intimidated when preparing a BIG meal.

Step-daughter Jill is very concerned about food sensitivities, allergies and healthy eating on a tight budget. She has been vegetarian (on and off) and gluten free (as much as possible), blaming bad food choices for not feeling energetic, bloated or at her best. The Paleo Diet seems to help her, and I’ve found that eliminating certain foods is not a bad idea. I would love to look as good as she does!

Sister-in-law Mary is much more sensitive to certain foods than Jill, over a longer period of time, and has demonstrated a fierce determination dedicated to maintaining a diet that keeps her feeling good. Fresh produce is a hallmark, and is raw whenever possible. No meat, no gluten, no dairy. Eggs are OK. Legumes are a staple. I’m amazed when I watch her pull together a vast variety of delicious ingredients when she comes to visit, creating a power-packed tasty meal. That creativity is called on whenever we have guests with what I call “food issues,” and we can have a diverse sampling of diets at any single breakfast seating.

Thank you to all of my family’s women who have influenced my cooking, and who nourish me in uncountable ways!