The minefields of meal memories

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I’ve been thinking about the tenderness and tact required in discussing food that mothers made. As in years ago – when their children were growing up – the dishes we now remember with varying degrees of fondness. My mother admits she hates to cook. Which made her, in my estimation while growing up, the world’s worst cook and the reason I became a vegetarian for 20 years. Later I learned that she cooks with resentment – angry at the husband who won’t boil water and kids who absorbed the message that cooking was her responsibility and we didn’t have to help either. Eeesh – I’d slap myself  if it would change things.

I’ve now discovered that my mother inherited this  from her own mother. I’ve had the chance to spend more time with my grandmother than my mother lately, and food is not one of the high points. She was a career woman and fighting for labor rights was more important than making dinner for three kids. It was the fifties and that’s what TV dinners and a compliant daughters were for. I’m sure I would have agreed – back then. Now she gets insulted when I don’t eat the snacks she lays in for my visits (fig newtons, canned ham, ice cream, frosted Oreos) or the things she brings back as leftovers from her retirement home’s dining hall (half-eaten grilled cheese, for example. The dog is much more appreciative. And fatter.)

It’s not necessarily easier to maneuver through meal memories in homes with good cooks. My mother-in-law served three different veggies from her garden with every meal and made apple strudel her boys still wax rhapsodic about. But as she closes in on ninety, she doesn’t have that energy anymore. Or the necessity. It makes more sense to buy processed foods that come in sizes better adapted to reduced appetites. She too, feels slighted when her visiting kids ask for soy milk, non-fat yoghurt instead of sour cream, or less oil in the bean salad. “What’s wrong with what we always ate?” is the unspoken question. She just set the bar too high and now her boys are all amazing chefs with very particular palettes. It’s easy to solve, though. Her sons and daughters-in-law just make a big show of “treating” her to a home-cooked meal, in her own home. It’s the Wisconsin way to avoid conflicts.

Just when I get to shaking my head about all those old-timey, unhealthy recipes, I get a reminder that puts me in my place. When I was researching my last blog, about Byrne Miller’s famous soup, I ran across an article in “The Litchfield Hills Sampler” of Torrington Connecticut. That’s where Byrne was living, and teaching dance, in the summer of 1971 (to escape Beaufort’s heat three months a year.) It was titled, “Cooking with Love” and told the story of Byrne’s soup. The writer clearly wanted to include a recipe, but Byrne’s soup never had one. It changed with whatever was left in her fridge. So she printed another recipe from Byrne.

Glen Cove Bake

1 lb boiled ham, very thinly sliced/6 medium potatoes, boiled, sliced very thinly/8 hard cooked eggs, thinly sliced/1 1/2 pints sour cream/ salt, pepper, paprika.

The article went on to describe how you cube the ham and layer the ingredients in a buttered casserole dish. I was horrified. Byrne, what were you thinking? You were a dancer. Your body was your temple. And then I read on. “The last time the price of boiled ham was at a premium was during the depression in 1933, when the Millers were first married and living in Glen Cove, New York. ” Ouch. Okay. I get it. But I still don’t want to eat it.

Luckily I have no children of my own. So there will be no disgusted progeny to react, years later, to the papaya salad I served at our progression dinner this past weekend. And it comes with its own provenance. On our first trip to Laos, in 2001, Gary and I ordered the green papaya salad at a restaurant in Vientiane. The waiter made a face, told us it was very spicy, and we were as insulted as our mothers probably are with us. So when a small crowd gathered on the balcony above the dining courtyard, waiters and cook staff, we couldn’t back down. The papaya salad was ruthless. Fluids flowed from every facial orifice. Not enough water in the world would help. My face was crimson; Gary’s a curious salmon color. But we ate it. Defiantly. Needless to say, the recipe we served Saturday is quite toned down. But still only eaten by half our guests. See what you think.

Papaya salad, as photographed by Mark Shaffer

Laotian Green Papaya Salad

1 green papaya – julienned

4 carrots – julienned

10 green long beans – julienned

1 garlic, 1 Thai chili, and 1 tablespoon each of  shrimp paste, sugar, chicken bullion, fish sauce, lime juice and dried shrimp – all mortered and mixed into a thick drizzle that you toss with the papaya and carrots. Top with cherry tomatoes and roasted peanuts. Hand out handkerchiefs.

3 thoughts on “The minefields of meal memories

    Will said:
    November 22, 2010 at 8:44 AM

    Yummy…and timely, too. Perfect for shocking the sensibilities of staid family members expecting sweet potato casserole with their turkey dressing.


    mark shaffer said:
    November 22, 2010 at 10:14 AM

    This calls up all sorts of memories and holiday…situations, most involving my mom’s former insistence on overdoing everything to the point of exhaustion. Then we had to eat off the “good china” and silver, none of which was allowed to be near a dishwasher or handled by anyone other than herself. Shear misery, assuaged only by lots of alcohol. Now it’s all ordered from Harris Teeter. Still served on the good china. We’re packing whisky.


    audsanns said:
    November 23, 2010 at 5:28 AM

    it’s amazing how many emotional and social implications food carries with it!


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