My mother belonged to the “life’s too short to stuff a mushroom” school of cookery, and yet, like most other people and their moms, I remember her meals with incredible fondness. I learned to cook from her and the hours spent in the kitchen were memorable not only because of the cooking lessons that I absorbed, but also because they were the times when we both would talk openly over endless cups of coffee about all of the things that were bothering us or amusing us or exciting us.
In my small, southern Ontario “whitebread” community, my mom was seen as a bit of an exotic. Her background was French and she was known to actually use garlic in the kitchen. We ate it, for instance, in the tomato sauce for spaghetti which was always served with meatballs. (Nobody called it “pasta” back then.) Like most of our neighbours we had a good sized yard with a large garden. But along with the necessities like tomatoes and carrots and green beans, our garden produced asparagus, chives, butter lettuce and lots of spring onions. Salads were a daily requirement for mom and she even made her own mayonnaise. And parsley was the ubiquitous garnish. Presentation was important and I remember being totally embarrassed when a friend came to dinner and her plate was embellished with the dark green sprigs. (No one else’s mom bothered with that sort of thing.)
Mother’s repertoire was limited — no one in the 50’s knew how to cook Thai and Julia Child had not yet appeared on the scene to upgrade our French cuisine. Time was short and mom didn’t make puff pastry or French bread or complicated sauces that required split second timing. Few cookbooks were used — I believe that I may still have a ragged and stained copy of “The Better Homes and Gardens New Cookbook” which, along with Betty Crocker, was the “cookbook du jour.” Soups and stews, meatloaf and salads were the basics and the “recipes” were, more often than not, a pinch of this, a bit of that and whatever leftover happened to be in the fridge. There were certain things, however, that had to be perfected: chocolate brownies, roast chicken with stuffing and gravy and, at Christmas, not one, but two “Christmas cakes”, a light and a dark, in case anyone came over for tea during the holidays. And, of course, I also recall the usual horrors of that era: something called “Sunshine Salad” which consisted of grated raw carrots suspended in lemon Jello always was on the table for special occasions. And it was not until I grew up and moved away, that I ever understood why anyone would want to eat a steak or rare roast beef which, in our house, had always been cooked until falling apart and grey. I also cringe at the recollection of the amounts of butter, bacon and salt that were eaten freely, because no one knew then that they supposedly were “bad” for you.
My family was not really “poor” but frugality in the household was the watchword. Food was never carelessly thrown out and, in the fall, the house was redolent with the odours of jams and jellies, chilli sauce and canned tomatoes. No one had huge freezers then, and to be accused of “cooking from the can” was a ghastly insult. A clean, well-lined fruit cellar filled with well-labelled, gleaming glass bottles was meant to get us through the winter.
As a tribute to mom, I’ll leave you with a recipe for “Bread Pudding” which I still have, written out in pencil in her quavery handwriting. And if you’re lucky enough to be with your mom this Sunday, be sure to give her a hug and tell her how much you love her.
2 1/4 cups milk
2 slightly beaten eggs
2 cups 1 inch day old bread cubes
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. vanilla
1/4 tsp. salt
1/2 cup seedless raisins
Combine milk and eggs; pour over bread cubes. Stir in remaining ingredients. Pour mixture into 8 inch round baking dish. Place in shallow pan on oven rack; pour hot water around it 1 inch deep. Bake at 350 F. about 45 minutes or till knife inserted halfway between centre and outside comes out clean.
This is good by itself, served warm or cold; but with heavy cream or syrup poured over it, or even a chocolate sauce, it is heavenly.