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Sunday, May 9, 2010

Happy Mothers, Happy Food, Happy Memories

Tim doesn't remember when his mother taught him how to cook. There probably was not one of those delineating moments, but more a lifetime attitude that food was more than merely the fuel of life. Good food was to be noted, and celebrated. But never taken for granted.

Ella was of that age — a depression era adolescent — when food was very difficult to come by. And that's why food was never to be taken for granted. But she was also defined by the 50s, when bland, canned convenient food made life much easier for mothers with many mouths to feed.

The family always thought it ate pretty tasty food, and there was always enough for the six growing stomachs and two adults around the table. Ella was known by her friends and by the friends of her children as a good cook.

She served what would now be called comfort food: mashed potatoes, meat (never the real expensive cuts), great-tasting sauces and veggies on the side. The veggies, with the exception of produce from the summer garden in the early years, were convenient canned or frozen vegetables, and that was where she realized her meal-prep efficiencies.

Then there were the desserts. They were worth the wait. Except for ice cream and the bags of mass-produced cookies that served to satisfy hoards of growing children, they were always homemade. Pies, cakes, cookies, upside down cake, crisps.

It must have been leftover from the farm culture. People visit and you expect them to stay because they've traveled a distance to see you. If the timing didn't permit a full meal, you always had some pie or whatever dessert was on hand. And there was always a dessert on hand. You asked whether the visitors might want to at least stay for "coffee." Coffee was shorthand. It meant coffee and a sweet of considerable substance. Sort of a farm ladies version of city tea. Except the men took their plates too.

When Tim went back to reconstruct Ella's recipe "book," he found that it wasn't a book at all but mostly a collection of sauce recipes clipped from magazines, soup can labels and ingredient boxes. Her really good recipes — the dishes she was known for, like her potato salad — were in her head.

Through all of the years of watching his mother cook, Tim picked up lots of pointers — and a mean recipe for goulash that got him through many years of college and bachelorhood. Her basics got him through years of cooking for himself and through his first culinary triumph, first place in the Midwest Chili Cookoff that was also one of his early collaborations with Ruth.

The greatest skill that Ella taught, however, had nothing to do with cooking and everything to do with cooking: self-reliance. Tim remembers her saying many times after hearing his whining about hunger, "Look in the refrigerator and the cupboards and you'll find some things to make a meal out of. Put enough of the right ones together and you'll have a tasty meal."

Words to live by. And words to memorialize one of our favorite cooks.


  1. Charles and I were talking this morning about our mothers' cooking and what we remembered most. He remembered the Hungarian goulash that stayed with Tim. I remembered what my mother called "slumgullion," stews that made careful use of every last scrap of leftovers. She had three hungry kids and a hardworking husband to feed with limited resources. But she made us feel like privileged members of the club that got to eat Okeechobee sandwiches, a combination of peanut butter, iceberg lettuce and mayo that raised Charles' eyebrows but was so much more interesting than peanut butter and jelly.

  2. Yes, we too added lettuce to peanut butter sandwiches, but not the mayo. Of course, rather than mayo we were a Miracle Whip family because we lived west of the Ohio and east of the Sierra Nevada — in the great Miracle Whip Valley in the middle of the country. And in high school, we added bananas to the PB and L sandwiches. Yummmmm!