Sweet memories of the most creative home chef who ever lived
By David C. Bailey
I was 16 by the time I appreciated what an incredible cook my mother was — thanks to the woman who would become my own personal chef.
“Duck sandwiches?” Anne responded incredulously when I told her what we were having for our picnic lunch, which also happened to be our first date.
“Yeah, and deviled eggs with watermelon-rind pickles and Mom’s chocolate chess pie for dessert,” I went on. In truth, I worried the repast might be a bit scant. Mom often fried chicken for picnics and packed her signature country ham biscuits, plus, if you were really lucky, homemade pimiento cheese sandwiches. Not to worry. My mother’s sister, Rachel, had also packed a picnic for our double-date, my cousin Bill and his girlfriend, Mary. She’d rustled up some of her tangy sweet-and-sour German potato salad laced with smoked side meat. Like Mom, Rachel blended lessons learned from her Pennsylvania Dutch upbringing with what she knew we Southerners loved. Add some of her simple but simply delicious sugar cookies, and our picnic made a pretty decent feed. (And yet, I remember the sweetest treat of all was that kiss I stole underneath the cotton blanket we tented over our heads against the rain.)
I now realize that my mother — and excuse me for expressing what may be a painful truth to you — was a way better cook than anyone else’s.
Look back on your own youth. Did your mom ever cook you duck à l’orange or Indian curry served with homemade chutney? OK, so maybe she did, but was she also able to Southern-fry chicken so crisp that it was a shame to smother it in milk gravy? And did your mom also wrap quail in bacon and stuff them with chestnuts and mushrooms? Was every single meal she served accompanied by some form of hot bread, plus a homemade dessert? Did you — and do you still — regularly dream about your mom’s cooking?
Other cooks may shine at the holidays — and Mother’s sweet potatoes with black walnuts, her shoo-fly pie and her whole baked country ham or goose were by no means shabby. But what my mother excelled at was cooking every dish day-after-day with the utmost creativity and care. Greek meatloaf she’d seen in a magazine. Deep-fat-fried zucchini or okra. Exotic specialties like borscht that she’d plucked from her beloved 12-volume Woman’s Day Encyclopedia (a set I still cherish and use frequently).
As my wife once remarked with amazement after experiencing a typical fresh-from-the-garden summer lunch of freshly picked corn on the cob, green beans tangled with bacon, fresh sliced tomatoes, cracklin’ cornbread, plus some leftover pork chops, “Every meal at your house is an event.”
My parents were foodies way before that word had any currency. My cousins would come and peer in wonder into our cupboard containing olives, pâté, anchovies, capers, four or five types of mustard, even caviar on occasion. Dad was a Belk store manager who traveled to New York City regularly and brought home shopping bags of pastrami, pickles and smoked fish, along with epic tales of lobster dinners and elaborate, multicourse Chinese feasts, which Mom would replicate, like his favorite, angels-on-horseback (oysters wrapped with bacon and broiled with onions and hoisin sauce). She fully embraced the ’50s hot trend of cooking what was then termed international or gourmet food, but she never abandoned the comfort food she — and Daddy — grew up eating on the farms they were raised on during the Depression — chicken-fried steak, sauerbraten, buckwheat cakes, chicken and dumplings, cider-braised rabbit and apples, all served with a heaping helping of their tradition, passed on from her mother and grandmother.
But her real creativity came into play with leftovers. As she would be piling bowls from the fridge onto the counter, my sister would say, “Uh oh, time for must-go soup.” Quoting my grandmother, Mom would counter, “Better bad belly burst than good food waste.” Roast beef hash. Spicy gumbo from leftover okra and other vegetables. Stuffed baked potatoes or green peppers. And her pièce de résistance: schnitz un knepp from leftover ham paired with apples and dumplings.
Mom was not a demonstrative person. She wasn’t huggy, and even her filial kisses might be termed polite and correct. She said, “I love you” to each of us regularly, but with just a tad of awkwardness. This despite the fact that she was a hopeless romantic who gobbled up Hemingway, Fitzgerald and massive Russian novels one after another.
Dad would finish his favorite dessert, mopping up one of Mom’s fluffy biscuits in a slurry of molasses, give a satisfied groan, push his chair away from the table and say, “Aren’t we glad we married her,” maybe the most affectionate thing I ever heard him say to Mom.
“Nothing says lovin’ like something from the oven,” the Pillsbury Doughboy used to say, and Mom’s cooking said it best. PS
O.Henry’s Contributing Editor David Claude Bailey learned to cook late in life at Print Works Bistro after working his way up from dishwasher to backline chef.