The minefields of meal memories
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.
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.
By the time I lived with Byrne, she had long-since parted ways with cooking. She re-heated. Unwrapped. Combined. Added Water. There was a phone call once, after I had moved to DC, comparing what we’d each had for dinner. Me, pizza from scratch by Gary. Byrne, oatmeal with sardines. But it wasn’t always so. In my research for the Byrne Miller Project, I ran across an article in a small Connecticut weekly extolling the dancer’s famous soup. It turns out it was rather famous. (In the blog about her birthday, Benjamin Barney left a comment you should read.) Basically, she started a huge pot of soup whenever a deadline loomed – a performance, or publication of a school magazine – and added something to it every time she walked past the stove. She said it was ready when a fork would stand up in it. It stewed for hours, even days, and everyone working on the deadline partook of the pot for sustenance.
I was thinking of this collective soup when I volunteered for the soup-and-salad portion of a progression dinner planned by my friend Jon. The guests/cooks were eight rather foodie types – not starving dancers or students – so I decided to try something a little less random. Okay a lot less random. Instead of chucking whatever was in my fridge into a pot, I made trips to five different stores. Terribly un-green, but there’s no choice when you live in Beaufort, SC and decide to make a green papaya salad and chilled coconut curried squash soup. At least the squash were local – from the farmer’s market Saturday morning. I’m not sure where the owner of Beaufort’s newest Asian food store (called Spout) gets his green papayas and nuclear Thai chili peppers. I’m guessing not from around here.
I’ll never know if the soup would have held up for days – our second course stop lasted only ninety minutes. But it was great the next day for lunch. I only wish Byrne could have tried a taste.
So now the recipe: