This blog is dedicated to my mom, the one who kickstarted my life in the kitchen. It is the eulogy I read at her funeral two weeks ago. While I still grapple with the magnitude of this loss, some very small moments occurred that have released a flood of memories. This is one I wanted to share.
About a year and a half ago, I was at the mall, shopping by myself, and about to pass right by the Pottery Barn Kids store. I did a double take at their window display, and there it was. A child’s size fun, retro, battery-operated oven, lime green, maybe it was canary yellow.
“That was MY oven,” I probably mumbled out loud. The one mom bought me in the 50s. Pottery Barn brought it back.
Because cooking is a messy business, my new oven and the few food prep utensils had to stay in the garage. So, yes, I had a little garage business of cooking. But honestly what can you make in a battery operated oven. Did it reach 350? Not a chance. I got to “warm” things. That was about it.
I needed the real kitchen. The one inside the house.
My mom supported my love of cooking and bought me The Betty Crocker Picture Cookbook. It is now a collector’s edition. I made the chocolate chip cookies but they didn’t look like the ones in the book’s photo. Those were lacy and chewy looking. Mine were soggy in the middle.
“When you don’t like something, write a letter.” My mom was teaching me to be an activist, even at age nine.
So I wrote a “Dear Betty” letter, and it wasn’t all that nice. But my mom put a stamp on that envelope and figured out where to send it. Because, you know, Betty was a myth, invented by the folks at General Mills to pen a warm, friendly signature to all the letters they received from home cooks. My mom sent my hate mail to the Betty Crocker Test Kitchen up north to General Mills, in Minnesota.
Miraculously, “Betty” wrote me back. I wish I had Betty’s letter today, because to show her regret, she sent me two things. Plastic colored measuring spoons and a hardback cookbook outlining how to carefully measure ingredients. My life in cooking began. I was armed with the tools I needed.
My mom helped jumpstart a lifelong love of cooking, and feeding others.
When mom cooked for our family, which was nearly every night, she probably made meat and potatoes because my dad was a meat-and-potatoes guy. Maybe every day of his 79 years.
We had steak, broiled. Hamburgers, broiled. Meatloaf and baked potatoes with sour cream. Something she called goop, which sounds like government rations, but it was butterfly noodles with meat sauce.
She loved making noodle kugel. She loved making baked chicken. And though I looked in the three cookbooks she gave me—an early edition of JOY, The Settlement Cookbook, and a Fannie Farmer cookbook, this recipe for cranberry chicken wasn’t in there.
Because kids are like little video cameras running around on legs—we record
everything—this is how I saw her bake chicken.
First, you must tie a skirt apron around your waist, not a full apron, the kind that ties around your neck. Next, you must take off your wedding ring and put it on a small ledge above the oven. She often forgot to put it back on and it’d be there the next day.
Then, in this order, put chicken pieces in a glass baking dish. Open a can of Whole Berry cranberry sauce, spoon that over the chicken in clumps. Sprinkle one package of dry Lipton onion soup mix over the whole thing. Open a bottle of 1890 Milani French dressing –it was probably the gold standard of French dressing of the day, and pour it over the top. Bake at 350-degrees for one hour.
It tasted great. As did Mom’s brisket. The secret ingredient of that Jewish holiday roast being a bottle of something called Kitchen Bouquet.
What all these dishes had in common was that they were served with LOVE.
Now, cooking through them, the tastes of these dishes allow a certain kind of access that is very special. And very fulfilling.