Southwords

Fare and Fowl

Not all feasts are created equal

By Jim Moriarty

To be perfectly honest, my mother, gone some years now, was a terrible — though determined — cook. I’ve been given to understand that many children develop a near Pavlovian fondness for some dish or other of their mother’s creation. This was as likely to happen in our house as acquiring an appetite for ptomaine.

In fairness, there may have been a genetic marker involved. My mother’s mother would never have been mistaken for Emeril Lagasse. Her signature dish was a chocolate cake with vanilla frosting. The distinctive feature of this dessert was its shape. It collapsed so utterly in the middle it looked like the entrance to a coalmine. This depression was then camouflaged with a generous application of frosting, which meant that the middle piece was 90 percent vanilla frosting and 10 percent chocolate cake. One morning I beat my older brothers to the kitchen, sliced off an entire side of the cake and helped myself to the middle. When they awoke, well, let’s just say had the FBI offered me relocation in its witness protection program I’d have gladly accepted.

As for our mother, while her repertoire of favorites may have lacked a certain palatability, her sweet devotion to them was heartfelt and unwavering. In the kitchen she was a juggernaut of dietary don’ts and never more devoted to them than during the holidays. It was almost an endearing trait. Almost.

Where to begin? Mother never saw a piece of meat that wasn’t a delivery vehicle for trichinosis. In her zeal to cook all things through and through, even flapjacks were suspect. Joan of Arc would have been considered medium rare in our house. Thanksgiving turkey didn’t need carving, it needed sweeping. On other occasions, should she be inclined to tackle a leg of lamb, she proclaimed — as if the advice had been passed down on a stone tablet — that it simply must be put in a cold oven. In practice, this was a bit like saying you ought to have a sip of cool water before hiking through Death Valley in August. One would have been inclined to accept the cold oven gambit as Gospel had the lamb not come out the other end the color and consistency of a Tootsie Roll.

And, of course, there were the complementary dishes. On one occasion my wife and I took our children to her house for dinner. This, in and of itself, could have been reason to alert Social Services. Nonetheless, we went. One of the sides she served was jellied beef consommé. Now, what child doesn’t crave this? I’m only surprised it doesn’t come in Popsicle form. On the ride home our son, who had been politely quiet all evening, piped up:

“Mom,” he said, “meat Jell-O?”

Say no more.

At a Thanksgiving of my youth, one of my brothers, home from college, seemed determined to get to the bottom of one of the great mysteries of each and every holiday meal. “Mother,” says he, “exactly who was it in our family who liked Harvard beets?” He assumed  there was some distant provenance, as murky as the crimson sauce, which was as viscous as 10W-30. No holiday was ever considered complete without them, though I feel safe in saying no piece of beet was ever in danger of meeting a fork. She didn’t even like them.

Friday nights were simplicity itself. A small plate, a Mrs. Paul’s fish stick and a fruit-shaped squeeze bottle of lemon juice. I was in high school before I discovered fish weren’t rectangular.

And there were the New Year’s Eve celebrations which routinely required oyster stew. Not just any oyster stew, mind you, but cold oyster stew garnished with an oil slick of butter on the surface. The thought of it gives me the shivers still. This was frequently paired with creamed onions, though the onions (Was the word ‘pearl’ ever more miscast?) in question appeared to have been scooped out of someone’s Gibson martini.

Mother was not unaware that her culinary skills were considered, shall we say, suspect. She tolerated the eye rolling and, I think, took a certain pleasure in delivering her own traditions with droll satisfaction. And I confess there are times when a parched piece of white meat and some lumpy gravy still seem like the finest meal ever made.  PS

Jim Moriarty is senior editor of PineStraw and can be reached at jjmpinestraw@gmail.com.

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