Published in The Ferndale Record-Journal, October 14, 2009
My childhood home was always interesting. There was plenty of emotion, lots of fun and laughs, some sorrow, nurturing, moments of pain. Probably like a lot of other families. The odd thing is, and most especially at this time of year, I can’t stop thinking about the food. My mother made sure we were well fed and her meals, especially the desserts, were legendary.
Her metal recipe box was military green, industrial length—maybe 18 inches long, and jammed (in an orderly fashion) with newspaper and magazine snippets, and 3X5 cards containing the best, and I mean the very best, recipes for home cooking ever compiled.
She used what was in season—a habit, no doubt from years of farm and frugal living. She canned every fruit she could and probably some she shouldn’t. Her pear preserves were the nectar of the gods. And before I grew up and left home I thought everyone ate canned raspberries.
Certain times of the year I crave different things. For example, in the fall and winter months I’m hungry for my mother’s baking powder biscuits and raisin pie. Not just any biscuits and pie—but my mom’s. I’ve learned how to make these things and they taste pretty good. But truthfully, they fall short of hers—at least in my mind.
Her Sunday roast beef dinner, complete with burnt (yes, that’s right) carrots and roasted potatoes is always on the tip of my taste buds. The gravy she made was not necessarily silky, but the flavor was off the hook.
In the fall I think about her apple crisp with just the right amount of tart to sweet ratio, and her homemade applesauce, punched up with cinnamon, cloves, and allspice with big chunks of apple in the mix.
Spring and summer were mostly about fruit pies and cobblers. Sometimes, even though my dad and I stayed clear of it, Mom would make a rhubarb pie. My father would eat anything she made—except that.
Big bowls of strawberries, raspberries, or peaches and cream with a slice of bread were sometimes lunch or dinner. And in August I begged for her Blackberry Fruit Roll. It was like a cobbler on steroids, bathed in sugar syrup. If there is heaven on earth, it was the moment when that flaky dough, and tart, sweet berry mixture hit my lips.
Wednesdays were her bread making days and, and those loaves rose higher than any I’ve ever seen. They made exquisite toast, hunky sandwiches, tuna melts, and creamed-whatever on toast. With a slice of bread like that and a white-sauce dreams are made of, it was Nirvana.
But the most spectacular of all were Mom’s desserts. She planned those before ever considering what we were having for dinner. Everything was from scratch. Chocolate, spice, white, and nut cakes lifted up high out of the pans and were covered in layers with frosting the likes of which I’ve not experienced since. As hard as I try to recreate these literal works of art, I can’t.
Her pies were just as noteworthy. Lemon meringue, coconut and chocolate cream. All homemade, no box stuff here. Cookies, pan desserts—it was all her specialty, and lucky for family, friends, and neighbors, she liked to share.
A friend of mine, coming to terms with diabetes and the limitations it imposes on her diet, pointed out how much our society is built on food as a socializing factor. Whenever people get together, food is inevitably part of the equation.
It’s true. Food, with all the bounty, guilt, and love/hate feelings it summons is, if we’re fortunate, part of the human experience.
The way I see it I was extra lucky. My mother set the gold standard for food and now nothing else is as worthy as hers was. I had the best. There were other good things about her too, of course. But the way she took care of people was to cook for them.
Let’s face it—in the world of parenting, there are worse legacies.