Friday, September 23, 2011

Mom’s Home Cooking

Not Mom. Not Grandma, either.

My Mom was not a great cook. She loved to cook and she tried. Don’t confuse cooking with canning. My Mom was great at canning foods. Mom created quarts of green beans, tomato sauce, pears, peaches, pickles, apple sauce and various jams and jellies from fresh produce. For most of our young lives our pantry was overflowing with home-canned quart jars.
Mom made these just fine.

My brothers and I thought she made good spaghetti. Since she often used fresh or home-canned tomatoes, I’m sure the flavor was outstanding, and I love good tomato sauce to this day. We never realized that most people have thick spaghetti sauce with visible meat in it. Mom's was more like tomato soup with some spices and a little hamburger waved over it for atmosphere. I still think that's what real spaghetti is like, regardless of what the Italian restaurants serve.
She made a great pot roast. I guess anyone can make a good roast, but it was her specialty. Whenever we had company that's what she served. Actually, we all loved how she cooked the vegetables in with the roast. Makes me hungry thinking of it, and I just ate dinner.
Mom also cooked a great ham, but I learned the secret to that when I was older and watched her prepare the ham. She used a can of beer in the pot with the ham itself. She said it pulled the salt out of the meat and made the ham more tender. I don’t know if that’s true, but her ham was pretty good. And for the record, I don’t like beer.
Mom made a good dish of Hawaiian Beans. That’s a family recipe and we loved it. Grandma Jen taught her how to make Hawaiian Beans. I don’t think they had anything to do with Hawaii – it was just the pineapple.
Hawaiian Beans added to my cookbook.
Mom also made killer Fudge. When we grew older and learned that fudge is often creamy in texture, I think we were all surprised. I still like Mom’s fudge better, with its sharp sugar crystals that melt in your mouth. We thought that secret was lost, but my sister-in-law rediscovered Mom’s fudge a few years ago. You’d have thought we re-learned the art of Damascus Steel, except this is better.
(Hey, Sis, I’m still waiting for a box of Mom’s fudge, by the way!)
We didn’t have a clue what cheesecake was. The first time I had cheesecake as an adult I thought someone was joking with me. My Mom’s recipe was Cherry Cheesecake, another recipe she got from Grandma Jen. It consisted of whipped cream cheese on a graham cracker crust – no easy task spreading it out though. The secret ingredient was the Dream Whip™ package you put into the cream cheese. A liberal covering of canned cherries completed the family cheesecake. Cook a cheesecake? I think not.
(I make a great cheesecake now, and I do bake it. It’s just not the same, though.)
Looks just like mine. Almost.
Mom’s bread pudding was the best, when she made it. We didn’t get it often, though. I’ve had bread pudding since, and I liked Mom’s better. That secret is gone now.
Hamburgers? Well, Mom made great hamburgers, but they were mostly oatmeal or bread crumbs. The same thing for her meatloaf, a dish my brother won’t eat even today. Although meatloaf with real meat is as close to Mom’s meatloaf as a chocolate fountain is to a water fountain. They just aren’t the same. I don’t miss Mom’s meatloaf at all.
Mom almost always burned toast. I mean really burned it. She spent more time scraping the black off than she did toasting the bread.
She loved to bake, or at least it seemed that way. Almost my entire life while growing up Mom was baking something for someone, not usually us. You have to understand that it wasn’t completely baked unless it was brown on the outside. Not tan. Not pale. Brown. Sometimes dark brown. There was a fine line between done and burned, fortunately for me and my three younger brothers. The correctly baked items went to the school or the church, but we got to eat the burned ones. I have to confess that the slight tang of the bottom of a burned cupcake or cookie is more than acceptable to me; it takes me back to my childhood days. If you want to see me and all my brothers smile the same happy six-year-old smile at the same time, feed us slightly burned chocolate chip cookies. If they are too burned, well, we can scrape the black off before we eat them. We got good at that.
Mom did like to try new recipes. There’s the Pizza Fish Story – that deserves its own post and is a family classic story. Now that Mom is gone I don’t mind telling it. I didn't tell the story in front of her because it made her sad.
When we were younger, and had first moved to North Carolina (which would put me between eighth and ninth grade) my Mom decided to make us true southern cooking. Why she decided this remains a mystery to me, as do so many things related to my Mom's cooking.
I remember the grits. I don't know what else she served, but four boys are not hard to please. Except for these grits. I don't know where she got them, and I don't know where she learned to cook them, but I do recall that big scoop of white, steaming grits dropped on my paper plate. <UPDATE: My brother wrote a funny bit about the grits, too.>
We didn't have a house yet, so we were camped on the shore and living in our pop-up camper. Chiggers were our constant companions. Maybe they weren't really chiggers. I do remember that someone else camped there called the little biters "no-see-ums" and that pretty much described them. Except when we were in the ocean water or the salt-pond at the campgrounds, we itched all the time.

But the grits. Oh my. We were all willing. We were game. Every one of my brothers tried at least a bite of the grits, and Tim probably had two bites. But when Mom turned her back we each dumped our grits in the dog's bowl. She was begging for food anyway.
The dog didn't eat any of the grits. Traitor. Mom was upset with us, and chewed  us out, and we probably went a little hungry that night. But she never made grits again, at least to my knowledge.
I haven't had grits since. But, you know, if Mom was here to cook them for me I might try them again. One more time. Just for Mom.


  1. That's how I remember it too. I think I was the first one to toss out the grits! Burnt burgers and meatloaf. The meatloaf almost ended my young marriage-that's also a story you could post for me someday. I share it with all of my students as a cautionary tale. Love ya bro! Keep the memories alive!


  2. Aw. :'( "I've had bread pudding since, and I liked Mom's better"? Ah, well, I can't compete with Grandma Fran. But I burnt cookies the other day, and Anthea said, "Oh, I love them burnt!" and I thought of you. :)