Nothing would be more tiresome than eating and drinking if God had not made them a pleasure as well as a necessity. ~ Voltaire
Growing up, I ate dinner with my entire family – mom and dad, my brother, and my maternal grandmother (Nan) – seated around the same table eating a home-cooked meal. I didn’t realize there was any other definition of “dinner”. I went to a friend’s house once and learned that there was such a thing as canned ravioli. Fascinated at first, I was quickly repulsed after a taste. It sure wasn’t what Mom or Nan made.
As much as food made with love played a role in my life, the comfort of a family dinner came more from the family than the dinner entrée itself. All the food was great (well, except for liver…I don’t wish to discuss it to this day, nor smell it). Specific memories are few, perhaps because all of the food was great and we tend to remember extraordinary events more than the ordinary. And even though she never seemed to measure anything, use a recipe, or do the same thing twice, certain foods I’d call Mom’s specialties because they were always so good. The legendary chicken soup, for example. She made it just like Nan – and I am still not successful in trying to duplicate it. Mom’s roast chicken, stuffing, and mashed potatoes were the best. From my younger years, I also remember that Nan’s homemade noodles for the chicken soup and her “dumplings” were extraordinary. If the cooking gene is passed on through mitochondrial DNA, I may have a fighting chance of becoming a good cook one day.
I never knew I had it so good – Mom made some of the best food I ever ate. I’d usually watch her cook and occasionally attempt to figure out how something was being made, but there was one thing that always got in the way of writing down a recipe – Mom never did the same thing twice. If I’d ask how much of an ingredient just went into the pot, she’d look at me as if I had asked a question in a foreign language. She didn’t follow recipes – she just cooked. “You’ll understand one day when you have to cook,” she explained.
But there is another category of Mom’s cooking that is even more memorable than the everyday favorites she made – her one-hit wonders. While not using recipes is great for creativity, it sometimes makes it difficult to repeat a good thing exactly the same way. She might make the dish again, but sometimes it didn’t taste quite as good as the first time. Three one-hit wonders stand out in my memory as those special creations whose exact recipes were never to be duplicated again.
First, the cream puff. It was December, 1985, and I had just finished exams for my very first semester of college. It was a Tuesday evening, and I was looking forward to watching Moonlighting when Mom decided to make some pastries. As a treat, for no apparent “reason”, Mom made cream puffs. The pastries were light and fluffy; the cream was oh-so-creamy and rich. Simply put, the joy I felt about successfully ending my first college semester, a fun episode of my favorite show, and the expectation of a Christmas holiday was delectably combined into a food – this cream puff. I don’t remember why Mom made them, but I certainly remember how good they tasted.
Mom’s next one-hit wonder was rather different from a pastry. I have no specific memory of when or why, but I was in my 20s or early 30s when she decided to make her own eggrolls. Lots of vegetables and chicken or shrimp were chopped, rolled, and fried. The “recipe” was simple – but no matter how many times we made them after this first time, they never seemed to taste the same and were merely good instead of achieving the greatness of that first batch of eggrolls.
Finally, my Mom usually made me a cake for my birthday. My cake of choice is always chocolate with vanilla frosting. The frosting was always confectioner’s sugar with butter and maybe some cream cheese. Sometimes she used a boxed cake mix, but one year she made the cake from scratch and used cocoa powder I had brought home from London and gave her as a gift. The result was the ultimate re-gifting – while all of her cakes were good, this cake was The Best Birthday Cake Ever. I think my parents and I almost ate the whole cake in one sitting. Again, we don’t really know why it tasted the way it did – far be it from Mom to pay attention to ingredients she was throwing in the bowl. But I can still remember feeling a childlike delight at the result.
Eventually I moved out and learned that in order to eat, I’d have to cook. And as it turned out, Mom was right – you don’t need recipes once you know your way around a kitchen. I should have known – are mothers ever really wrong? In the years since, I’ve managed to make a few meals that have become my own personal standards and I’ve had a few one-hit wonders of my own. My cooking may not always be as good as Mom’s, but I won’t stop trying! Fortunately I can still call her for advice when I’m in the middle of
destroying making something for dinner. It’s like having my own personal “lifeline” with Julia Child on the line – “So, how do you know when the fill-in-the-blank is done again?” Her answer? It’s always right.
Written for the 108th edition of the Carnival of Genealogy: Food!