by Frances Edstrom
Warning: if you are one of my kids, don't read this, or it might spoil a Christmas surprise!
I hope my mother isn't reading this, either, although if she's in heaven, I'm sure earthly insults don't mean a thing.
My mother could turn out a great buffet party: baked ham, clam chowder, and clam appetizers served in the shell. But a husband with ulcers who forbade onions or garlic in the house and six kids, whose "no" foods took in such surprising things as pizza, chili beans, undisguised vegetables and anything called "steak," her day-to-day repertoire was, well, bland and serviceable.
When I first got married, I was well-armed with two cookbooks, but it turned out I didn't need them! We just managed to show up at John's mother's house almost every day at dinner time.
Then all of their kids left home, and Harold and Jo figured out they could go to restaurants for dinner (hey! what about me?), and then I figured it was time to cook. You'd be amazed what you can do with canned foods. Put an egg on top of canned corned beef hash, and wowie, zowie, it looks just like the picture in the cookbook.
Pretty soon, even I got sick of my cooking. I got a used cookbook at a junk store, and went to it. Unfortunately, the cookbook was in a junk store for good reason: it was written by a real food snob well before anyone thought "good and easy" could describe a gourmet meal.
I slogged along, making such things as a whole ham on which you spread some disgusting concoction that looked like frosting, stuff in aspic (yuk), and poached pears in maple syrup (oof). Lucky for me, I had a friend who was a chef in a local restaurant, the Williams Annex, and he took me under his wing ("Fran, that was a really disgusting meal"). Tough love signalled the end of tough food. Soon I became a passable cook.
Of course my kids hated almost all of it, with the exception of the things that I made only to dispense with the many dead critters John insisted on bringing home. Duck Stroganoff was and is one of their favorites. But even when John raved about my daily offerings, the kids still whined for Kraft mac and cheese, tacos, and the ubiquitous hot dog.
So when those same kids started moving out, going on to college, then to their own homes, it was a pleasant surprise to have them call me for recipes. How sweet, I thought. Until after the fifth or sixth time a call came for my Aunt Dolores's lasagna recipe. ("Mom, I'm at the grocery store. Could you read me that recipe?") I decided that for Christmas they are getting recipe boxes with their favorite recipes from mine.
I am copying old recipes, from my own, written sometimes in the distinctive handwriting of friends and loved ones, a few long departed. As I do this, pleasant memories of days spent in past kitchens waft over me like the familiar aroma of Thanksgiving dinner. Holidays, special occasions, and impromptu dinners featuring these recipes come back with all of their emotions and stories.
When I am finished, I will have gifts for my children, and a gift for myself "” hours mulling over my kitchen life, the object of which was not only to feed hungry mouths, but to create a circle of love and friendship around the family table.