I don’t know about you and your Mom, but I felt that my Mom was the best cook around. In retrospect, a good deal of her food was very 1950s James-Lileks-type food. You know the type: fried canned luncheon meat, fried baloney, canned spaghetti, Jello-in-a-bowl with fruit cocktail scattered into its depths and topped with once-frozen whipped topping. As children, we didn’t know the difference between haute cuisine and cuisine de Maman.
Part of the reason she was not more adventurous, besides the fact that it was the 1950s, was my dad. He did the shopping (with a list made up by Mom), but he was the breadwinner. So we ate what he liked. Occasionally we deviated from the script, and it was at some of those times that unfamiliar food defeated even my mom.
I have only ever once eaten tongue. Once was enough, even though I am told that cold tongue in a sandwich is quite good. Somehow Mom had gotten hold of a cow’s tongue and, as always when confronted with an unfamiliar item of potential food, she called her Mom. They conferred daily, keeping Ma Bell in electricity, but especially when Mom needed advice.
So she asked her Mom how to cook a tongue, and Grandma gave her detailed instructions. Boil with herbs, carrots, onions, salt and pepper, let cool, slice, and serve. Unfortunately, Grandma left out one step: after the tongue has cooled a bit, you need to take off the skin and cut the bone and gristle out of the back end of the piece of tongue before serving. I don’t know how this detail got left out of the recipe; perhaps Grandma mentioned it and Mom forgot.
Well, imagine baloney (1950s style, with a plastic skin) fried with the skin left on and then put in a sandwich. It was something like eating a roast beef sandwich with the roast beef encircled by rubber bands.
From my Googling of recipes for tongue, cooked correctly it’s hard to tell tongue from a slow-boiled pot roast. I shan’t be trying to cook this for myself, but Mom didn’t have Google or even a decent cookbook to turn to when she had something unfamiliar to cook. Luckily we used to laugh about it later on, but at the time it was quite serious.
My Mom was a great baker, and you couldn’t touch her on pies. Her apple pies were always light and flaky of crust, full of juicy and tender apples, baked to just the right level of doneness and seasoned with cinnamon, nutmeg, and allspice. Her mince pies were rich and always a hit at Thanksgiving and Christmas, and her squash pies (which English people regard with horror) were heavenly.
Her cakes always leant to one side or another, because the oven was not correctly levelled. This didn’t matter, as they tasted good enough and, with artful arrangement of the two layers, the eventual outcome was happy enough.
But her baking Achilles heel was the humble biscuit. They tasted fine, had exactly the right slightly dry, flaky consistency, made with the best Bisquick. But, unfailingly, every time she baked a batch of biscuits they were burned on the bottom. The insides and top were fine, but the bottom of each biscuit was dark brown. In extreme cases each biscuit came to the table with its bottom neatly sliced off as it would have been inedible. We would tease her about her biscuits whenever she baked them.
Every family has a food-related anecdote that is recalled at every family gathering down the decades. For some it’s the Christmas turkey that wasn’t defrosted, leaving Mom with the unenviable task of bathing it in the bathtub early Christmas morning. For us, it was the year that Mom forgot to take out the giblets in their little plastic packet. She stuffed the turkey with her enviable stuffing (made with stuffing mix and potatoes, properly stodgy but addictive). She put it in the oven on relatively slow, and took it out when perfectly done. When we invaded the hind end of the turkey, expecting stuffing, we found giblet instead.
Parsnips were an uncommon vegetable in the US of the 1950s, at least in our area. They looked like anemic carrots to us, and we weren’t having any of it. But Mom, intrepid, got some parsnips and decided to bake them. She peeled them, put them in a pan with some oil, and baked them until they looked done. Unfortunately, she hadn’t parboiled them first. They came out rather hard, somewhat unappetising, and still definitely anemic. Up went our noses, and we never had parsnips again.
You are probably thinking now: what is all the fuss about? None of these failures is something that would kill the family, nor even make them slightly ill. (I am not talking about the chicken pot pies we had one meal in the late 1960s that had us all very ill all night–this was not a failure but an accident that meant we never ever had pot pies again after that day.)
Mom’s little failures helped us coalesce as a family of five people trying to last out difficult times, united us as a unit, and made us all smile at times when we might otherwise have been in pain. A week or so before she died I called her, just as she used to call her mom, and she told me about the crash diet her doctor asked her to undertake before possible heart surgery. I remember vividly her description of the amount and type of food she was allowed to eat: “You wouldn’t want to eat here any more.” Yes, Mom, I would want to eat there again, burned biscuits and all. After her premature death in 1981, the memories of her food failures as well as her successes ever after gave the family something by which to remember her with love.