Cooking With Mom

Mom at Flanagan's in Bermuda
My Mom was a great cook. As children of the 50’s and 60’s, or as I like to call it “the Ozzie and Harriet years,” for the most part, our Mom didn’t work outside of the home. She was running a household with a husband and five children. There were no “Soccer Mom’s, or Mavericks.” We never even heard of Soccer before. Maverick, Bret and Bart, were characters in a TV show, not a candidate for Vice President.
In many cases the fathers, mostly returning WWII veterans worked, and had little to do with actually raising the children. That was up to the stay at home mom’s. In our house, dinner was on the table every day at 6:00 pm sharp! Among my friends, my Mom was considered a great cook. They would often be hanging around at dinner time, just waiting for an invite. To many, opening a can, heating it and serving it was called "dinner" at their house.  I had breakfast at a friends house one time that consisted of bagels, cream cheese and a soft drink. My Mom made real spaghetti, not spaghetti out of a can.
Pork Chops Spaetzle
My Mom was a twin. My Mom and her sister were both good cooks. Often when they cooked, there was a contest. In our house a salad consisted of a wedge of lettuce, a couple of tomato wedges,  and either French or 1000 Island Dressing. Other than that the only salads that we had were American Potato Salad, my Mom's, German Potato Salad, my Aunt's. The other salads consisted of; ham salad, shrimp salad, egg salad, tuna salad, and chicken salad. My Mom also made meatloaf as did most mothers. My Aunt Mary, Moms twin made the best meatloaf. Sometimes we have to tell it like it is. This competition was so strong that I found three different recipes for one of my Aunts casserole. Each recipe was was completely different. My Mom said that she never liked the recipes. My Aunts was better. My Mom apparently played the same game and would leave out one of two ingredients.
In early 1998 I decided that someone had to get my Mom’s recipes from her. I would frequently go to see her on weekends, often with my wife, and sometimes on my own. Aside from shopping for her weeks groceries, often we would watch TV or play cards. Her game of choice was “Pinochle.” Since that required more than two people to play, we often ended up playing Gin rummy.
Mom's lasagna

It was while playing cards with her one day that I first presented the idea of writing down her recipes. She did have recipe cards that often were little more than a grocery list, or general outline. I needed more. She asked why this was important to me? My first thought was that life is short. I explained that I wanted her recipes, not only for my family, but my siblings, their children, and there childrens children. I soon discovered that this project, would be no simple task, since Mom never measured anything. My goal was to have the project completed in time for Christmas. I couldn’t do this on my own, so I recruited my wife to assist.

In the beginning, Mom was reluctant, realizing that the only way to write an accurate recipe was for her to actually make that recipe, with our assistance of course. And so it began.
Mom could get gravy out of a dry hole in the desert
If you every saw the 1999 TV movie “Tuesdays with Morrie,” our recipe sessions became a little more than I expected. I recently learned that some people are blessed with the ability to distinguish flavors from a simple taste. My mother could remember not only the taste but the smell as well. She was a “super taster.” The recipe sessions became a family history lesson as well. I had her recipe cards but some were never written down. She would tell us stories about her growing up, her family and foods they made. One of us would go shopping and the other would stay and play cards or watch TV with mom. When the shopping was finished the recipe history began and often the cooking.
Making Lots of Gravy
One by one we took on each of her recipes. Reading them, cooking from them, and then correcting them. This was at a time of my life when I was getting pretty adept at the "copy and paste" function on the computer. Once I had determined a recipe format to use, I would write one recipe, copy the entire recipe, and use that copy to overwrite the text with the new recipe. As I said before, I am not a writer, and often can't see obvious mistakes. This will come up later.
Mom just loved making Rumaki during the holidays. For the adults she made them using chicken livers wrapped in bacon, marinated in soy sauce and broiled until the bacon turned crispy. As kids we just couldn't appreciate chicken livers. Mom made us a special batch of Rumaki, using water chestnuts instead of chicken livers.Yummy!
Crab Meat Appetizer
Other than the rumaki, Mom had a special set of hors d' oeuvres. Her crab meat puffs and steak tartare were two of her hits. As children the thought of eating raw meat was not something  that  we would do. The fact that it had a raw egg in it made it less palatable. 
Steak Tartare
Her steak tartare was made with round steak (ground 3 time) instead of beef tenderloin chopped onions, an egg, salt and pepper to taste. That's it! The adults just loved it. We watched as they consumed the raw meat, hoping they would not eat it all. Let me explain, if they didn't eat it all, Mom would spread butter on a slice of rye bread, lightly broil it and then spread a thin layer of tartare on top of the toasted bread. The smear of butter kept the meat juices from soaking into the bread. She placed the tartare rye slices under the broiler and cooked them to medium rare. We just loved it this way. 
Broiled Tartare
As we grew older, we skipped the broiler and ate it raw, just like our parents did. Once a fashionable hors d' oeuvre trend, today eating steak tartare is considered unsafe because of the raw eggs and raw meat. Some restaurants still serve it but it is generally not on the menu. It is still great, broiled on rye bread.
When Mom made us breakfast for any special occasion it was almost always "Eggs-In-The-Nest." This one breakfast goes by so many names it would be impossible to list them all. To my wife they're called "Eggs-In-A-Frame. I asked my mom where she learned to make "Eggs-In-The-Nest." She told me that it was from a Shirley Temple movie. My wife was given a cookbook when she was in the 4th grade called "Betty Crocker's Cook Book for Boys and Girls. In this book, under the "Campfire Cooking" section there is a recipe for "Eggs-In-A-Frame."
One day while talking about making roast beef, and as she was explaining the preparation, a light bulb went off in her head. I had quite accidentally sparked a memory of hers. With a smile on her face she let out an "aah."  I apparently had set off a pleasant memory and a taste to go with it. This quickly turned our conversation from cooking an ordinary pork or beef roast to a whole new level. As I said before, Mom could remember not only a taste but a smell as well. I know what you're thinking... nobody can do that! Yes they can.
A tale of two roasts
Mom began telling a story about her Mother's cooking that I had never heard before. I call it a "Tale of Two Roasts." Mom said that every now and then her Mother would make a very special Sunday dinner consisting of a pork roast and a veal roast. In the 1940’s buying meat was a whole lot different than it is today. There weren't many large chain grocery stores around. There were, however, corner "mom and pop" grocery stores with their very own butcher. Housewives generally knew their local butcher by name and the butcher knew them, their families, and their tastes as well. When you bought a roast, it was not rolled or tied as is commonly found today, but the whole loin of pork. The butcher would trim and prepare it any way that you wanted it.
What took this particular meal over the top was not the meat itself, it was the gravy, made from the pan juices of both meats cooking in the same roasting pan. She said that her Mom would transform those pan juices into the most incredible gravy that my Mom ever tasted. They served this roast with a cauliflower gratin.
Cauliflower gratin
My children and most of her grandchildren loved her Lasagna and what she called Macaroni Goulash. I discovered that today it is called American chop suey. These were some of the first recipes that I tackled. Since many of her old standards were not written down, I had to remember what it was that she made in the past, that I wanted the recipe for.
Fried scallops, cottage fries and broccoli
Mom did know how to stretch her food bucks so that we could indulge ourselves in the finer things from time to time. The ones taht I remember are French fried shrimp,  actually any kind of shrimp, crab legs, scallops, and on very special Fridays,  she splurge and buy these small frozen rock lobster tails (2) in a box. They were just amazing and part of the reason that I/we love lobster today. Mom did not like any other type of fish except haddock, broiled with butter (poor man’s clobster).  She also loved to fish but was more of a catch and release type person unless she bagged a big one and then it was mounted on the wall.

For family reunions the most often thing that my Mom was asked to bring was her famous "Plum Kuchen." It could only be made in late summer when the small Italian plums were in season. Even as kids we loved it.
Plum kucken

In 1998 I had completed about 40 of moms recipes. I went to the nearest Kinko's and found out how incredibly expensive it would be to get this recipe book printed. So instead of printing 50 books I decided that I would print 14 books. After printing these books I gave 1 to my Mom, kept 1 for myself, gave 4 to my siblings, one to each of my 4 children, and 4 to the older grandchildren for Christmas. I was so happy to be finished.

It wasn't long before my Mom called and said "there's no water chestnuts in Macaroni Goulash!" The old copy and paste struck again. I had copied the format and text for the Rumaki recipe, when writing the Macaroni Goulash over it. Apparently I left the water chestnuts in the ingredient list.
Macaroni Goulash, a.k.a. American Chop Suey

Now that the  recipe book was printed I started hearing comments about some of Mom's recipes that I had left out of the book. I was called by some people who didn't get a book at all and wanted one. Then one day, one of my siblings suggested that rather than writing a new version of Mom's book (you know who you are), I write a family cookbook combining Mom's recipes with those from our family. My first reaction was "no way!" Then there were offers to "help me" so this really wouldn't be that difficult. So I began adding recipes from my family and then, cousins, friends of the family,  their friends, and my friends as well. When will it ever end?

My abilities in desktop publishing were growing and I now had the ability to include color pictures in moms cookbook. In 2008 I printed the 2nd edition of Mom's cookbook, omitting the family recipes because I was not even close to finishing them. I included one color photograph for each recipe. The new edition had about 43 recipes in it.
With two small cookbooks under my belt, I continued collecting, testing and writing family recipes.
Cruising with Mom
One time, many years ago, I had a chance to take my Mother and Father on a cruise. My Father was quick to decline my offer, telling me that he was on a cruise twice in his life and wasn't about to do it again. I quickly pointed out that his two cruises were on a troop ship in WWII (the big one) going to and from Italy. He just wouldn't go. My Mother's only response was "when are we going?"
Imagine this, I'm cruising to Bermuda on a very small ship (675'), sharing a very small cabin with my Mother. One day I lost her. Where could she possibly be? I searched the ship stem to stern, checking her usual haunts, like the breakfast and lunch snack bar at the rear of the ship. During this cruise she acquired a real fondness for bread pudding with bourbon sauce (a great way to get rid of stale bread) during our trip. She wasn't there. Then I tried the casino, the pool, back to the cabin and was beginning to get a little concerned. "Where could she be?" I wondered. Maybe she fell overboard. I  went back to the cabin and checked out the ships activities for the day. I quickly ruled out the driving range, skeet shooting on the fantail and continued down the list until I came to "cooking lessons." Every day on the souvenir menu they would include one or two recipes for you to try when you returned home. I went off towards the dining room until the wonderful aroma of Italian food hit my nose. I spotted her learning how to make Fettuccine Alfredo.
When we arrived in port we went to a restaurant overlooking the harbor for lunch. Mom waited at a outside table while I went to order drinks. When I returned with a drink in each hand Mom was talking to 5 men, in their 40's, and apparently well to do. She was so happy to see me as the men introduced themselves. They were on a adventure cruise from New York to Tahiti on their very own sailboat. Apparently their cook took sick and was in the local hospital. Mom jumped in and said that she told them what a good cook I was, and that I could take over for their missing cook for the continuation of their trip to Tahiti. Mom had done a fairly good job of embellishing (gilding the lily as only she could) my cooking experience and they offered me a job for 30 days and airfare back to Chicago from New York. The money issue was not even discussed. Imagine this, I am in Bermuda with my Mother, a job offer on the table to go to Tahiti? So what did I do? I called my wife and asked how she would feel if I went to Tahiti. This was a very expensive pay phone call and her only response was "are you drunk"?
Ultimately I declined their offer, but every now and then I wonder how this trip could have altered my life forever. As of this date I have never been to Tahiti, and sailing is still on my bucket list priorities. 

On the subject of cooking lessons, Mom would frequently sign up at one of the larger supermarkets for cooking lessons. She was given a printed bio of the chef giving the class, information about his restaurant or hotel and of course the recipe. Mom would experiment on us after attending these classes. Life was good!
Fourteen years later, I'm finally finishing my cookbook. What will I do now? Stay tuned for another chapter.    

© Tmelle 1998-2014