I grew up in a row house in southeast Washington, where each of the streets was a letter of the alphabet. Ours house was on S Street in a subdivision of 400-brick homes built as the country was coming out from under the Great Depression.
The semi-detached, three-bedroom house had a galley kitchen about the size of one you’d see in a mobile home today. But that didn’t deter my mother from cooking every weekend and on Tuesdays—her day off. Unlike the other women in the neighborhood, my mother worked outside the home. She was a hairdresser and eventually owned two beauty salons, becoming a businesswoman at a time when they were rare.
She could have used the long hours as an excuse for skimpy meals or turned to using mixes or deli meats. Instead, she cooked everything from scratch. After church we’d come home to a chuck roast left warming in the oven or a baked chicken. Potatoes appeared everyday in some form or another: baked, mashed, fried, or in salad, soup or stew and there were always several green or yellow vegetables on the table. Desserts were a weekend treat, often yellow layer cake with chocolate icing or a new recipe she had found.
During the forties, when the wartime motto was “Can all You Can,” she put up jars of green beans, tomatoes, chow chow, pickles, and beets, enough to see us through another Thirty Year War.
No one ever came to our house, whether it was my piano teacher, the insurance man, or a repairman, without being offered food or drink. As a neighbor once noted, “No one leaves Vi’s house hungry.”
Dishes I Still Miss from My Mother’s Kitchen
Just before I got married in the fifties, my parents built a new home in Oxon Hill, Maryland and acquired a more spacious kitchen. On my return visits from Missouri, I would enter through the kitchen door and go straight to the refrigerator to size up the offering. (It was a bad habit practiced by the entire family even to this day.)
A big bowl of potato salad would invariably be awaiting me. She knew it was one of my favorites. I’d spoon a big glob onto a plate and pull up to the kitchen table, that was topped with a colorful oilcloth, a small vase of flowers from the backyard, and a hand-crocheted napkin holder. Mama would sit with me and we’d talk and laugh long after my helping of potato salad had disappeared. I never asked for the recipe because the ingredients seemed so ordinary, though I do recall her saying it must always be made with real mayonnaise for maximum flavor.
Her spoon bread was a treat she reserved for Thanksgiving and Christmas. The wonderful egg and cornmeal concoction was a Southern delicacy from her childhood days in Virginia. It was always the last dish out of the oven and a signal that we should gather quickly at the dinner table.
After her death, I found the recipe among her many cookbooks and kitchen notes. The handwritten card was yellowed with age and stains of batter dropped during the preparation of those meals of yesteryear. I have tried to replicate the dish, but no matter how hard I tried my spoon bread never matches my memories. Ditto on her potato salad, vegetable soup, and turkey dressing.
The Secret Ingredient
My friend Nina offered me some insight. Actually, Nina is my daughter’s friend, but being a good daughter she occasionally shares a friend with me just to keep me from becoming too fuddy-duddy. Nina’s grandparents came to America from Sicily years ago. Her grandmother made an incredibly good tomato sauce. After she passed on, Nina’s ninety-some-year old grandfather made the sauce every day and shared it with anyone who stopped by during the lunch hour.
“How can the sauce be so good, with so few ingredients?” I asked. “There must be a ‘secret.’”
“Yes, there’s a ‘secret’ ingredient,” Nina confided. “It’s the love. All good Italian cooking is done with love.”
Ahhhh . . . that must be true of Irish cooking as well. Now I know why my mother’s potato salad was so delicious. It all makes sense now.
When my mother got sick, shortly before her death, I insisted that she not prepare anything for my visits. Still, the bowl of potato salad was there, though I know it must have taken her far more effort to make then it once did.
I’m thinking Nina is right on this one. When we dish up love we’ve got a recipe for fond memories. When my children say that my meatloaf is scrumptious, maybe they’re tasting the love that comes with it. I hope so, because that helps explain the reason for most home cooking.
Have a Happy Mother’s Day. If your biological mother’s not around, find someone nearby that you can show love and appreciation this weekend.
(Some content for this post was taken from my book “A Little Help from My Friends.”)