Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Bless The Cook

I've been told that you can say just about anything about anyone, if you add the phrase 'bless their heart' afterward.

My mother is a bad cook, bless her heart.

She wasn't extremely young when she married, but hadn't learned domestic skills yet, including cooking. Her mother did all of the housework while my own mother was growing up, even made the children's beds, and at the times when the girls would offer to help, she would shoo them away, saying, "Ach! Go! Go! Enjoy your childhoods!" ...so... they did. My mother never did so much as a lick of housework, never did dishes, never cooked.

My father announced one random evening to my mother, very early on in their marriage, that his parents would be driving all the way from their small town in Pennsylvania to my parent's humble apartment in Brooklyn. He requested that she make a meal 'fit for a king' for them, even though they didn't have much money and had been eating not much more than soup and bread those days. My mother knew of just the thing; a simple spaghetti recipe that she thought would suffice. In her mind, she really thought she was going to impress the in-laws and make her husband proud. The Tomato Soup Spaghetti Sauce recipe did not go over very well. Unbeknownst to my mother, my fraternal grandmother was an amazing cook, and spaghetti sauce just happened to be her specialty....her sauce would literally simmer all day and all night, just to get the precisely right flavor. She'd won numerous awards for it....The in-laws were gracious, but the meal was essentially 'not a hit'. After the in-laws made their exit, my parents had an...altercation...over it.

But my mother tried, (bless her heart). Not everyone has imagination in the kitchen, and her budget must have been very hard to work around, with my father's meager earnings, so early on in his career. Add this to the fact that he had several personally imposed 'restrictions' on what she could not add to dishes, and it would have been difficult for anyone. No green peppers. Not too many onions. Easy on the spices. Perhaps he had spent too much time working at the hospital; because our fare was essentially hospital food...very bland, not much flavor, and usually of a terribly unpalatable texture. Unbelievably, hanging in every kitchen they'd ever owned was a plaque, bought by my father and hung on the wall by Himself as well.... that my mother took as a compliment; but one we children viewed as a solemn warning. It said, "MARRY A GOOD COOK. KISSIN' DON'T LAST. COOKIN' DO."

Given these circumstances, I would argue, some mercy needed to be given to the victims...er....diners....of our home. But alas, no mercy was extended. Meals were made to stretch and stretch, where the main ingredients were coarsely chopped cooked celery and oatmeal (even in my hamburgers) and were tough to gag down. I grew to detest cooked celery. But the meat was the worst, when we actually had meat. I am a carnivore at heart, and I LOVE a good steak...but I learned early on about fat and gristle. Mother did not believe in cutting those parts off; that would be wasteful. We were told to eat EVERYTHING on our plate, no excuses. So I would chew. And chew. And chew. And the gristle would lose its flavor and not want to be in my mouth anymore....and I seriously didn't want it there, either. Waiting for it to break down so that I could swallow seemed to take an eternity. Heaven forbid it should wind up back on our plate; a Federal Offense...

Since we couldn't leave the table until our plates were empty, at times I would sit there for literally hours, deserted by the heartier eaters. I remember the ten o'clock news coming on a lot of the time. The house was always cold, and those wooden chairs seated around the table could put a dent in your derriere for good. Eventually I would just swallow the required portion in tiny pieces like a pill, if I could. This would make me gag and it would require a lot of mental toughness on my end, with some self-talk involved to be able to do it... But I would resist for a long while before I reached that point.

The thing that began to save me was the 'flicking'....one of the most useful things I ever learned to do with my fingers. When a meal like that came along, I would take the offending piece, and, using my other hand as a platform, and flick the fat or gristle onto the floor under the table. This was working splendidly for a time, except for that I remember my mother loudly complaining when she got around to vaccuuming under that table that she was finding all of these 'dried pieces of food' all over. But then the fateful day when I flicked my last flick; the piece of gristly meat landed squarely...into my mother's lap. Game over.

But not to fear; there were other methods. I discovered the joys of a paper napkin...and my parents, being rather proper, always, always had a paper napkin folded beside our plates. Did you know that you could wipe your mouth and use your napkin as a depository? Well, you can. My napkins must have weighed at least a pound after I got done eating some nights. I used to joke to myself on meat nights that it was a 'Full Napkin Night'.

I shared this memory with my sister yesterday. She and her husband live in the same town as my parents presently, and they are frequently invited over for dinner. She mentioned the blandness of the food, and their new specialty, "Special Macaroni and Cheese", aka...burnt noodles with precious little cheese, drenched in...wait for it....Worcestershire sauce. When I began to mention the coping techniques of my childhood, Lillian began to laugh uncontrollably and said, making a mental connection perhaps... "I noticed that my husband was using his napkin quite often!"

My mother is a bad cook, bless her heart. If you are invited over for a meal; bring along some extra napkins...just to be on the safe side.

Copyright (c) 2009 Amy Larson. All Rights Reserved.

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