Occasionally I like to write about people I call Unlikely Heroes or Heroines in the Gastronomic Trenches. Today I’m going to write about my mother. Amelia — everyone called her Mollie — was a helluva cook. She was a simple cook. She wasn’t occupied by dealing with a lot of complicated steps in her cookery or page after page of ingredients that needed to be assembled before you could get started.
Some of Mollie’s favorite dishes were beef stew, spaghetti and meatballs, chicken with dumplings, boiled beef with potatoes and carrots, roast leg of lamb with white beans, beef tongue with tomato sauce, lamb tongues with white sauce and capers, sauerkraut with ham hocks, Baker’s Oven (a potato casserole with bits of bacon and cheese), and cold cuts with macaroni salad (homemade of course). She also made a dynamite risotto, which she called Spanish rice. These are things I remember and that I still prepare for my family after all these years.
NO NONSTICK PANS
When I was a kid, all my buddies liked to eat at my house. It seemed like they were always around at mealtimes. “Eating with you was the best,” an old high-school friend told me recently. “Man, could your mom make tapioca pudding.” She folded in whipped egg whites before she served it. That was her secret.
And remember, all of this was before artfully composed plating, before the Cuisinart, before foam took over from gravy, before microwave ovens, before molecular cuisine, and even before nonstick pans. Mollie thought that food was supposed to stick to the pan. All that stuck stuff made terrific gravy.
She had a Crock-Pot but she never used it. “Crock-Pot food has no taste,” she said.
THE BEYL PANCAKE
Mollie also made a magnificent breakfast. There was a thing she called a Beyl Pancake: two eggs beaten in a bowl, half a cup of milk or a bit more, and half a cup of Bisquick. Put a hunk of butter in your pan — the kind of pan things stick to is OK — and when it sizzles, you pour in the batter. As it sets up over medium heat, you move the pan around (so nothing sticks). Then you fold the pancake in half and cook it through as it puffs up to about an inch thick. Finally, you turn it out on a warm plate and eat it either with powdered sugar or maple syrup on top.
CANNED STUFF WAS OK
When I think back on those days, I come face-to-face with the fact that there are a lot of foods I never had as a kid that I now take for granted. As a youngster, I never had fresh oysters or clams on the half shell either at home or in a restaurant. For Mollie, clam chowder came out of a can. Of course, she “fixed it” by adding potatoes, green peppers, and a pat of butter.
As a kid, I never had smoked salmon, calamari, prosciutto, or romaine lettuce. Lettuce in my family was iceberg. And salad dressing was Wesson oil and cider vinegar with a spoonful of mayonnaise added. But we had great hot dogs — the kind with skin on them that snapped when you bit them and juice squirted out into your mouth. Sometimes with those hot dogs my mother would open a can of Franco-American spaghetti. Nothing wrong with canned spaghetti. Yes, and although the emphasis was on fresh food, occasionally we had meals out of a can. I can’t recall that we ever had frozen vegetables. Maybe we did and I just didn’t know it.
PAN FRIED ON THE WEDGEWOOD
Mollie’s kitchen wasn’t large but larger than the one in which I now cook. Although our house had a formal dining room, we ate in the kitchen in an alcove she called a breakfast nook. There was no garbage disposal and no dishwasher. She had a Frigidaire and every once in a while it needed to be defrosted. Her stove was an immaculately kept Wedgwood range — four gas burners, a large, deep, waist-high oven and a broiler you had to bend over to use. It was a classic Wedgewood stove. It was a beauty. On those rare occasions when we had steaks, we didn’t broil them. We pan-fried them. I still do that today. Scraping up all that good stuff in the pan and finishing it with butter.
MOLLIE’S JELL-O SALAD
In the backyard were two fig trees and a Victory Garden. Do you remember Victory Gardens during World War II? Ours was full of beefsteak tomatoes, pole string beans, carrots, radishes, turnips, zucchini, and such. What we didn’t eat at our table right after we picked it, Mollie “put up” in Mason jars for later. When I was an adult and she would come to my place to visit, she would unfailingly bring put up stewed tomatoes, string beans, or bread and butter pickles. Almost always, she would also bring a jar of chopped parsley. “Can’t have too much chopped parsley,” she would say. And as a piece de resistance she frequently brought along her — (“world famous” she called it) — canned pear-lime Jell-O and cream cheese salad in a mold.
As I remember, my mother had only a few cookbooks — Fannie Farmer, Betty Crocker and Helpful Hints to Housewives. But she had hundreds of three-by-five cards with recipes in her own hand, and clippings from magazines and newspapers. I still have all of that stuff, and I still use them.
Anyway, that was Mollie’s kitchen and that’s what Mollie cooked in that kitchen. Was your mother like that?