“Where did I come from?” is a question most kids ask their parents at some point. Perhaps not at 40, but they still ask it. I have been, as always, reading. Well, reading and watching food porn on TV. Anyway, I noticed a theme that was emerging: Great chefs cook from their history in some way. For example, the winner of Next Food Network Star, Jeff Mauro, is the Sandwich King because that is what his dad was and who he came to be in his own cooking. If that is how one rises to the top as a chef, that begs me to ask the question, where do I come from?
Unfortunately for me, and more so my mother, my maternal grandmother died at a young age when my mom was just 9. My mother didn’t have the benefit of learning to cook from her. My mom married very young and had a strong mother-in-law, who believed it her role to teach her how to manage a household. My mother had 4 children in very short succession and became what I called “the short-order cook”. Her food was meant to nourish. And quickly. There was not a lot of thought put into spices from my memory of it. By the time my younger sister and I were added to the brood (total of 6 kids), it was pretty much about just getting food on the table. We had a pretty standard rotation of recipes that made their way through the weekly menus. My mom also worked, so getting food on the table quickly was the name of the game.
Don’t get me wrong, I loved my mother’s cooking. I was a child who loved to eat, so how could I not adore the person bringing food to the table three times a day!? My mother made the most awesome fried chicken, and by natural progression, chicken-fried steak. There were some real stinkers in there as well. Like the spaghetti sauce she made from a packet. Yikes! There were more ancient memories of my mother having made egg noodles that were left to dry. Of her making jams with the wax seal on top. Man, I loved chewing on that thing!
So when I decided to figure out where I came from, it was a challenge. I don’t have a lot of family history to work with. What I do have, however, is a big, plastic, 70’s-green box full of recipes, mostly handwritten. I honestly don’t cook from this box. I hadn’t given it much thought until recently. I had to ask myself why wasn’t I using this tool that was at my disposal, this link to my past? Then I started to go through it (I got as far through the alphabet as Cookies) and figured out why: A good percentage of the recipes were based off things like boxed cake mixes and the like. Most of it wasn’t from scratch, which was typical of my mother’s era. She was the generation of women’s libers that was expected to finally have it all; family, work, whatever. They were the first women to realize that in order to have it all, you had to cut corners. Then came the introduction of fast food and prefab meals. Life had to be made simpler to survive. I totally get that. But I don’t cook that way.
So I picked my way through the section of cards that I had pulled out and decided to go back to my roots, something that I have personal memory of. When I was a kid, we used to go to my grandmother’s house at Christmastime. She would always make each of us our own batch of cookies. I am not kidding you. Keep in mind how many children my mother had and add to that her other grandchildren – it was crazy! Anyway, I always requested Ready-frosted Raisin Bars. They are amazing. They have the most heady smell to them. They will draw you in from another room while cooking. Every time you cut into them, everyone will take notice. They have a perfume that cannot be matched. They are truly intoxicating. Anyway, I whipped up a batch and have been working my way through it these past couple days. I have to say, they did not disappoint. Well, maybe a bit, but I think that may have been my doing. The top was not crumbly like I thought it should be. Either I left the butter out (which I don’t recall) or I should have added more. Regardless, they rocked.
I am going to start working my way through this box. Going to start pestering my mother and my aunt for information on what they recall from their childhood and see if I can’t piece together my own food history. We’ll see.
As a wiseman once said, “These are my people. Sort of.” Paul Graham, Alimentum Journal