Helen Chappell - November 2009

Mom Hated to Cook


Helen Chappell

   Just as my mother lived to clean her orderly house, so she hated to cook. She freely admitted this. But, because she was conscientious, cook she did, with a sort of begrudging emotional parsimony. The time she spent chopping and bending over a hot stove, she clearly thought, could have better been spent dusting or waxing the floors with Butcher’s Paste Wax.
    Our house may have been a showplace and a museum, but our meals, as I recall, were solidly in the Germanic tradition of her ancestors.
    We ate pretty much what every housewife in post-war America was serving. Meatloaf and mashed potatoes, steak and roast beef, chicken, roasted or fried, canned vegetables of a suspicious olive hue, white bread or biscuits and tomatoes, lots of sliced tomatoes. But her favorites were fried sliced ham and dried beef and gravy. The fried ham showed up at least once a week, probably because it was easy to cook and serve with a side of peas or green beans or macaroni and cheese. And also probably because it was what she’d grown up eating.
    Every autumn we slaughtered a steer from the farm and, because we had a deep freeze, we ate beef. A lot. A lot of beef because that was what we had. I hate to think about the cholesterol, but in those days that was pretty normal.
    Of course, she was cooking for two picky eaters and a husband who usually took a large lunch at the hospital cafeteria, so she did her best.
    Frankly, if I never see another slice of fried ham again in my life, I’ll be happy. Like her pork chops, it was tough and dry as an old boot, and about as tasty. But you ate it anyway, because it was what you knew.
    Another favorite of hers was dried beef and gravy on toast. I understand in the military this particular dish is known as [expletive] on a shingle, and I can understand why. I think it was popular during the Depression because it was so cheap to make.
    You took dried, salted chipped beef, fried it of course, in a gravy of flour, shortening and milk the consistency of liquid paste, and served it on toast. Also, it’s easy to make, and for a woman who disliked cooking, that probably scored a few points.
    I admit that I ate it and liked it. If you grow up with something, of course you think it’s good, because you don’t know any better. It is no doubt a great comfort food for a lot of people out there. It’s soft and easy to chew, creamy and the crunch of toast is always nice. Especially if you don’t mind drinking glass after glass of water for the rest of the night. It was saltier than a salt mine. And my mother believed in salt.
    She was also a devoted follower of Crisco, a sort of solid vegetable shortening no good ’50s housewife would have lived without. It came in a can, and replaced lard as the healthier choice. It went into everything. You fried chicken in it, you used it in pie dough, you couldn’t bake a cookie without it. I recall Mom scooping it out of that blue can, melting it in her trusty iron frying pan, ready to go.
    That was how people ate in those days. It wasn’t just us. When you went to your friend’s house, they ate the same way, more or less.
    Except for the Italians. How I loved going to see my Italian friends. For them, eating wasn’t just a Protestant exercise in duty. It was a joyous event, fueled by huge pots of something wonderful involving tomatoes and veal bones simmering all day on the back of the stove. Where our family ate quickly, so my father could get to his evening office hours, meals with the Italians were happy events, where people laughed and maybe even sang a snatch of music and heaped your plate with more pasta, more gravy, more cheese, more of everything. Mangia!
    I was raised by a generation of women, at least my mother and my aunts, who believed a roast was raw if it wasn’t so thoroughly cooked that it was dry as a bone. Everything meat, and there was always meat, was overcooked. Maybe it was from a lifetime of eating pork, which has to be thoroughly cooked. Maybe it was just a Northern European tradition, dating back to the days when you tossed everything in a pot over the fire and boiled the life out of it so people wouldn’t get parasites.
    Vegetables went into the pressure cooker, a dangerous instrument that looked and acted just like it sounds. It could, and sometimes did, blow up, sending steam and bits of vegetable flying everywhere. It was, however, a time-saving device. The pressure cooker was where the life and the green were sucked out of green beans, spinach and anything else that could be served limp and olive drab.
    My family wasn’t much on trying new things either. One time Mom tried a new recipe that involved some kind of beef stew covered with snowflake rolls, which was baked en casserole.
    It wasn’t bad. It was just new to us, and we all turned our noses up at it. She never experimented again. I ate some of it when no one was looking, and it was actually quite good.
    Now, my mother did have one thing she liked to make, and she was good at it. So good, in fact, that my aunt, who was considered The Cook of the family, said Mom’s was better than hers.
    My mother could make a lemon meringue pie that you would kill for.
    And she rolled her own pie crusts. Now, I couldn’t roll a pie crust to save my life, if I wanted to. I have to depend on Mrs. Smith for mine, because I can’t duplicate my mother’s.
    Somehow she was able to cream her flour and her Crisco and whatever into a perfect consistency, then, with smooth, competent strokes, roll out a perfect crust on the counter, which she smoothly transferred into a pie plate, trimming off the edges with a knife.
    Next came the custard, which was magically conjured in a double boiler. Through some alchemy involving lemons and sugar and eggs and whatever, she made a custard. That custard was thick and creamy, made with fresh lemons, so citrusy that you tasted it and floated to heaven. It was perfect, as far as you can get from the cardboard store-bought pies as it is possible to be.
    And last, the meringue, which was perfect, a confection of egg whites that she could coax into peaks just so, that stood up high and proud with just the lightest touch of browning. It was the kind of lemon meringue pie that would make you stand up and slap yourself. The meringue, the lemon custard and that smooth crust all just blended together into a little bit of heaven melting in your mouth.
    Mom was justifiably proud of her one culinary accomplishment. And it certainly made up for her solid, nutritional but uninspired cooking of almost everything else. I know I couldn’t recreate it, so I never even tried. And out of tribute to her, I never, ever order lemon meringue pie.