I searched like mad in my two ancient recipe file boxes for a hot German potato salad recipe that I believed my mother had long ago bequeathed to me. It was for our annual Labor Day family BBQ that also celebrated youngest daughter Alexandra’s 38th birthday. It gave me pause, those files. Those years of our family dinners in our homes as we moved about, my parents’ sunny dining room and in various in-laws’ were unveiled in mind’s eye.
On my own turf, I was once a decently functioning if reluctant cook. That is, I managed to cook entire meals (usually) three times a day for 7-12 people (finally 5 kids, often their friends plus 2 parents), and not repeat menus so often they were entirely predictable; they might even fool you as aromas drifted from the kitchen. This went on for decades. But it isn’t meant to insinuate I was the cook everyone longed to become or so adaptable I could pull off a fancy dinner in an hour’s notice. No, I knew my stuff but only as far as my knowledge spanned. Thus, a proficient cook–I had honed fair skills by my mid-to late twenties, being a late starter. I made sure everyone got their fill at the long oak table. And if that table overflowed with extra diners our kids dragged in from the area, they just had to share: cut meatloaf slices in half, break corn cobs into two so all stretched for all.
This was before cell phones so people actually ate their meals, not photographed them. We talked a lot between mouthfuls or even while chewing despite manners prompts. It was a theater for big personalities, each competing against the others in a seemingly random manner. Plus we all had ideas and loved to explain them or toss about smart retorts. One child was very quiet by nature. I swear she rolled her eyes at the rest, and know she raised her hand to speak if needed. But such diverse energy cannot be denied; our table was never boring. My family was less aware of the goodness of the food than bellies being again full enough to move on to a more arresting event. But I felt satisfaction as morsels disappeared–another meal pulled off and done. But I also got frowns, teasing words despite my best attempts. My extended family thought I was not likely to amount to a cook at all so I cooked less and less for them.
I was content to often eat what was left over. I got too busy getting more milk or juice, forgotten salt and pepper or more napkins, that jar of dill pickles someone had to have and so on. My husband shouted over a murmuring din, “Cynthia, sit down and eat!” but as soon as I did, the phone begged to be answered (and it hung on the wall) or there came the dog to be subdued or a window had to be shut as rain slashed through a screen. I was a lot thinner then, but nourished enough by what had been left as we cleaned up. There were more serious leftovers if it wasn’t so great. It wasn’t often that people begged more. However, I got good at baking, so desserts were the treat they anticipated as they shoveled in pallid green beans with tuna curry and rice; beef (extended with soy protein) stroganoff and a fat green salad; burgers with fries plus coconut-lime Jell-O topped with mini marshmallows. I counted on chili as a favorite as well as beef stew. Soups. Anytime I could toss 6 ingredients into a pot and forget about it for 2 or 3 hours I was relieved. Otherwise I had to plan. And not having a grocery list with all things checked off could throw me into a moderate anxiety attack (which I felt only an annoyance of being a bonafide housewife).
Since the thought of being original and proficient and on time might fill me with a subdued fear some days, I’d cut out recipes to save in the junk drawer. Stick on the frig or a bulletin board. I studied reliable ole Betty Crocker plus Better Homes and Gardens’ cookbooks and then The Wise Encyclopedia of Cookery, the one that ruled with every single help for a problem or desire– far more than mattered to me. And I collected recipes from resources such as friends, neighbors, mere acquaintances, church suppers. Naturally our extended families.
They were handwritten so legibly on index cards often decorated with fancy stoves or shiny food or floral motifs. Works of kitchen art, advice to the food-bemused. My mother dashed them off on to lined index cards. Every woman had these at home; they were even given to the bride-to-be as wedding shower gifts. I found that strange but filed them in the new boxes that had dividers naming food groups or meal courses. In case I really cooked a full meal by myself; I was still an innocent then and married to an artist so didn’t yet worry. You could not underestimate the power of a trusty recipe from someone who cared, these ladies said. Though I barely knew the difference between an egg yolk and egg white at the advent of my first marriage at almost 21. Luckily, my husband’s mother knew fully how to cook and offered tips as deemed crucial–she commandeered a successful catering business, after all, so I took notice, committed info to memory. (Even his sisters had the gift of cooking and other such arts. But this was a clue to my future; it did not bode well in domestic departments. I was a poet, had other things to do, just like Ned, my husband.)
Yes, I learned to be prepared for requisite meals; if not, I retrieved what was needed in time even if knocking on neighbor’s doors for forgotten basil–what was that exactly?– or one tablespoon of sour cream. Every day, before I knew it, my life was built around other people’s schedules. Proscribed mealtime preparations were critical to running a harmonious household. Then, after I had learned a little and gotten wiser, my second husband–with whom arrived more kids–began to travel for his work. I panicked alone some meals–was the oven working quite right when the temp seemed a bit iffy? Were the peaches spoiled or fruit flies just in love with their deliciousness? Was it terrible for children to eat graham crackers soaked in bowls of milk instead of a whole meal when I had a raging headache?
They grew. We got by even when there wasn’t much money in early years. There was no help but my hands and those of my children if I could round up a couple, perhaps threaten no more outdoor time that day (or TV, their rare treat) unless they assisted. Luckily, they liked to cook a bit so I started them on it then, unlike my mother. They all assisted off and on when they had time…even my son, who did great eggs on Saturday mornings when he hadn’t sneaked off on bike or skateboard. They could scrape plates clean and wash and dry dishes (by hand, usually; we did not often have fancy or large kitchens) at ages 6 or 7. They could make simple salads by then and cook up a few things by 9 or 10. But mostly they liked to be called into the house, sit with everything laid out nicely and fill up. Of course. They didn’t work for me but vice versa.
I dreamed of fine tablecloths like my mother used, matching and even crystal water glasses and bright bouquets at center that would stay in place rather than fall as a few hands aimed badly for a bowl of mashed potatoes. I intoned again: “Pass the dishes clockwise or pass yours to me to be served. Napkins on laps. Elbows off table. Okay, wait a minute,hold hands and say our prayer. Okay, now you can eat and don;t forget to say please and thank yous.” These provided me with a sense of civilized order despite stray peas squashed underfoot, the dog being fed unwanted Brussels sprouts under the table. Despite my sense of loneliness when things didn’t work out well–or did.
And when I didn’t want to even look at or smell food–not a rare thing as I had colitis plus various food intolerances that visited me with significant pain and distress–I thought how strong, how capable our children, in truth, were. How they thrived, overall, and needed steady support in the natural progression to adulthood. Even my attempts at being a mother-type chef could help. Cooking might not have felt like true love to me much–come on, it was sweaty work, a necessary sacrifice of time and energy–but it was service to my family I cared to provide, needed to provide. Only when I baked–cakes and muffins, cookies and pies, rolls and breads–came the happiness, my love in action. I believe they knew it. But major food groups well represented, nicely arranged on their stoneware plates? Just part of the job. The flowers in the vase made it better, as did pretty napkins–presentation and decor did matter, as my mother taught me.
Why did I feel that way, and struggle? I had little to no talent for cooking, that’s all. I liked to do things I did well, not stumble through with heart in throat as the timer ticked away and the throngs were getting restless–especially if husband or perhaps mother (or mother-in-law!) waited hungrily in the dining room. Or hovered over me–unbearable. I knew I would get a “C+” on average, a “B” if I sweated harder and then got lucky–and there were times my effort didn’t make any grade at all. But I worked at it, I made progress. Each meal was taking care of my family. In that process I even had a good time here and there, slicing up juicy nectarine and pineapple and slippery avocados, browning onions and pork chops, folding fluffy eggs into an aromatic omelet, by gosh.
All of this came back to me as I sorted through decades-old, stained and disorderly file boxes, looking for that German potato salad recipe. I never found one so resorted to Betty Crocker’s advice. But I found recipes from my first mother-in-law, Blanche, the caterer, who instructed me regarding a happy marriage: 1 cup of good thoughts and good deeds each; 2 cups of sacrifices; 3 cups of forgiveness and much more. And her Amazing Coconut Pie and Original Brickle Crunch Cookies, among others (her famed honey-lemon diamond cookie recipe was not given to me but my daughter, her granddaughter got it). From her son, then-husband Ned, were hand printed recipes for Sour Cream Chocolate Cake and Salzburger Knockle. I even found one from Marc’s (second and current husband) ex-wife–one of my college friends long before marriages and divorces–for her good Soft Molasses Cookies.
I came across a recipe that my youngest daughter created as a four year old: Flamingo Dance Salad. She made it when we lived in Tennessee, her tiny self atop a kitchen stool, leaning plump arms across the counter, her hands shredding things into a bowl as I wrote it down for her. I hear the echo of her squealing laughter as she announced the name of her offering. (And gave it as a fun gift for her birthday this year.)
There were plenty in my not-quite-refined, embellished penmanship on those cards, ideas for when I’d run out of steam, favorites to be revisited, finer ones ones for guests. I made our yogurt back then; fresh picked fruits were turned into jams; tomatoes from our own garden yield transformed into freezer pasta sauce; brownies made with bitter carob and sweet honey; and my golden poppy seed bread was given away at Christmas.
And I thought I hadn’t liked cooking, at all.
I guess I stopped as it became less pressing to do. I got a career going, had less time and other interests each year as kids grew up, left. My husband has cooked the past years; we can afford to eat out a lot more. When he travels I somehow make do, more or less, but still cook very little. Okay, essentially none. Why bother? Salads are fast, yummy and handy. Take out is quite good around here. I will still make stew and chili and a few other things if asked by someone who cares…
But I stared at the cards, absorbed by the treasures, looked closely at my mother’s elegant teacher’s handwriting told of lots of vegetable, fruit and Jell-O mould salads, her famous apple strudel passed down from my grandmother and ten different bar cookies and several cakes and pies; hearty meat dishes and soups; holiday punches and eggnog and cocoa mixes…and much more. Perhaps she wanted to make up with all those recipe cards for not insisting I learn to cook. She’d wanted me to keep studying, to write, to practice voice and cello, play sports. She was an excellent Southern cook, the grits, hominy, fried chicken and far more that I liked better. I would watch her work, at ease and dancerly, buzzing along in one of her many elements as we swapped news of the day, long winded stories we delighted in telling each other. Maybe, I thought later, she knew I had no gift with food but had other talents and that was that.
I chose a few recipes I might want to try out again–me, this rather grey haired woman I am becoming, who retired from cooking a long time ago. Cooking was never that much fun–time consuming, unpredictable. I also had a habit of reading to pass the minutes and forgot to check the roast or batch of cookies. The smoke alarm was busy. I then started again, biting back curses. Had to get this or that on the table in time for everyone to eat, maybe chat, go forth into the world. Me, too.
So I smoothed a mere half dozen of many creased, faded, stained cards on my table, lined them up in rows and I saw there those grand times and mundane moments; mind numbing sorrows and cheery celebrations. Life markers and yes the mighty love that abided. It was all there. And this year’s BBQ gathering overflowed with the last. I have to say the hot German potato salad was even quite tasty.