It was the tenth anniversary of my mother’s death this summer, and I found myself thinking a lot about her. A remarkable thing about grief: ten years later the waves aren’t that much smaller, they just roll in less often. I miss my mom. She was my confidante, my counselor, and my co-conspirator in all sorts of fun. It remains my abiding regret that my daughter, just six months old when my mother died of lung cancer, will never know her in person.
My mother – Mary Ann Hook Cooper -- was also a terrific cook. We talked once or twice a week, often around dinnertime and often about food. Her food life traced to Midwestern German roots and mammoth country dinners served on the hand-hewn dining-room table at her grandparents’ farm: sauerkraut, pork loin, roast potatoes, “and everything cooked in bacon lard!” she would recall, laughing. Despite her meat-and-potatoes (or Schnitzel und Kartoffeln) background, or perhaps because of it, she grew to be a petite woman and a vegetarian – albeit one who allowed herself spectacular lapses, like gorging on pickled tongue while visiting her brother, my Uncle Dick. Pickled tongue!
Her favorite cookbook, naturally enough, was The Joy of Cooking, also a product of Midwestern Germans, namely the mother-daughter team of Irma and Marion Rombauer. I own it now, my mother’s 1953 edition – the year of my parents’ marriage, and probably a wedding gift. The book is covered in the same red-and-white-checked contact paper with which, for a lurid interlude during my early childhood, she papered our kitchen walls. The spine of the book is broken, and opening to the broken place gives you a pretty good idea of the Rombauer culinary worldview. It’s a salad page, but don’t expect arugula. Instead, you’ll find Mock Ham salad (made with bologna); Veal or Beef Salad; Salad of Sweetbreads, Cucumbers, and Mushrooms. And, yes, Pickled Lamb Tongue Salad. Irma Rombauer wrote that she hoped “to encourage the cook in her daily grind,” and her advice reverberates with the kind of humor, arch yet generous and slightly eccentric, that my mother loved. For instance: “Serve hot food hot from hot dishes. Serve cold food chilled from chilled dishes. Keep calm even if your hair striggles and you drip unattractively.”
That I’m the cook in my own family is all thanks to my mother, and my own joy of cooking goes back to hours spent with her in the kitchen of our house in New London, Connecticut. The room was the warm, thumping heart of our home, and as a boy I loved being there, and especially when my mother stood at the stove. Sometimes I'd help her sift or stir or fry. Other times I'd just sit, tasting spoon in hand, perched atop the green-painted step-stool she’d saved from her mother’s kitchen.
Eventually, when I graduated from college, my mom sent me off into the world armed with a copper-bottomed Revere saucepan, cast-iron skillet, spatula, and a selection of her recipes, which she copied by hand on notecards in protective plastic slipcovers. I still have them, in a box in the pantry. They carry the flavor of my family’s past. Like Mrs. Gormley’s Chocolate Cake, the recipe of a cranky elderly neighbor whose husband left the house so seldom that we joked, morbidly, that she’d killed and buried him in the basement. Or Bunny’s Breasts, a chicken-and-tarragon specialty we chortled over, because its originator, a friend of my mother’s, was so amply endowed.
There was Swiss Steak, a top round simmered with onions, tomatoes, and garlic – the first dish I ever made on my own, circa 8th grade, relishing the violent action with the tenderizing mallet. Another great family favorite was Straw and Hay for the Pope, fettucine with prosciutto, mushrooms and peas in a béchamel sauce, a dish that afforded this Catholic middle-schooler a satisfying tang of the blasphemous. (Though I doubt my mother knew this, your Commonweal culinary maven knows that the dish traces to a little curlicue of Vatican culinary history – namely, that Pius XII, concerned perhaps that his cassock was becoming a bit less roomy, requested a carbonara-like pasta dish that might be a little bit lighter, and this is what his chef prepared -- paglia e fieno alla Papalina. It seems an apt recipe for Commonweal readers, so I’ll post it below.)
From the perspective of today and our farm-to-table, local-produce enthusiasms, the mid-20th century cooking revealed by my mother’s recipes seems remarkably free of fresh ingredients. Why use fresh tarragon when you have it dried, right there in the little bottle—and it lasts forever? Recently my sister made Mom’s broccoli casserole. “Do you realize it includes three cans of Campbell’s mushroom soup?” she asked me. Not to mention frozen chopped broccoli and a half-package of Pepperidge Farm stuffing. Mom’s prized Fish Daufuskie featured a vermouth sauce with mayonnaise, Worcestershire, tabasco, mustard, and garlic powder. You might call this Condiment Cuisine.
It’s also startling today, when every Main Street boasts Thai and Indian take-out, to recall how provincial mid-century middleclass America was at the table — and what counted as “exotic.” My mother made “Spanish rice” (onion, garlic, tomatoes, touch of chili powder), and served it with a theatrical flourish, as if flamenco dancers were close behind. But her midlife coincided with the end of the meat-and-potatoes domination of American cooking; and for her, food increasingly became an adventure, even a means of vicarious travel. Take, for instance, her eggplant lasagna, made with fresh mint, a Mediterranean note inspired by a Lebanese friend. Or her sesame asparagus, blanched to a brilliant green hue, then sprinkled with soy and roasted sesame seeds.
Leaving her German meat-loving roots far behind, my mother discovered simplicity, color, freshness, serving them up in abundance to all of us. She had a light touch. And a funny one, complete with friendly Rombaueresque exhortations. “Shake like hell!” she wrote on the recipe for French dressing she gave me. And I do, with joy and gratitude.
Mary Ann Cooper’s Straw & Hay for the Pope
For the béchamel sauce, melt 4 Tbs butter, sift in 4 Tbs flour, stir in 1 cup chicken broth and 1 cup milk. Cook and drain 1½ lbs spaghetti – half egg fettucine, half spinach fettucine. Saute 2 minced cloves of garlic with 3 Tbs butter, then add ½ lb sliced mushrooms (sauteed or canned), 1 cup sliced prosciutto, 1 cup frozen peas. Mix everything together and toss in big bowl with plenty of salt, pepper and grated Parmesan.