My mom, her parents and siblings
It would be no exaggeration to say that my mother has forgotten more about cooking than most people learn in their entire lifetime. Back in the great depression when she grew up, access to cookbooks was severely limited. Meanwhile, people today have access to online resources and yet still, they rely on takeout or order in more than once a week. Everything my mother learned about the kitchen came from cooking every day with her mother on the farm, for a family of sixteen. (My mother, her parents, and thirteen siblings).
Some older kids today complain about having to clean up their room or doing their homework. Can you imagine their reaction if they had to help their mom prepare a meal every day for such a big family after a long day at school? And back in the 1930’s and 1940’s, there was no bevy of pre-made products to speed things along: No frozen dinners, no instant mashed potatoes, no Hamburger-Helper. Almost everything was made from scratch. Faced with that amount of work, today’s younger generation would probably get on their I-Phones and file a complaint with the Human Rights commission, or order ten all dressed jumbo pizza’s and charge it to their father’s credit card.
As for my mother, you could assume that all those years of back breaking kitchen work would cause her to be sick and tired of cooking in all its forms. But no, when we get together, even still now at age 84, she prefers to cook rather than order in, or go out to a restaurant. As well, thirty to forty percent of our time together with her is spent discussing recent recipes we’ve enjoyed, often while we are eating, or, are overstuffed after eating one of her tasty meals. I think the world will come to an end before my mother gets sick of cooking or eating delicious food.
As an example, recently while planning a future visit to see her in Sherbrooke, I told her we could bring some delicious organic ham, and fresh bread from the Atwater market. My mother blinked back at me in total surprise and said, “Why buy bread, you don’t like my homemade bread anymore?”
“No no, ma”, I reassured her, trying not to drool over memories of how good her bread smelled while it baked in our wood oven, “we love your bread! I just thought we’d save you a bit of work.”
Feeding my aunts and cousins
To be honest, my mother is not the most experimental of cooks. Her specialty has always been French Canadian cuisine. She does not dabble too much in recipes from different countries, mostly because she’s never sure where to get the variety of herbs and spices required for the more exotic cuisines. But, when it comes to her style of cooking, the scope of her knowledge is vast, and always yummy! If I started listing everything she does well, I’m sure I could write at least ten pages, so I’ll just stick to major categories.
Meats she handles with great ease, to such a degree, I’ve never seen her use a thermometer to determine when it has reached the peak of perfection. From her experience on the farm, she knows all the different cuts of meat, and is never bashful about locating the butcher wherever she shops, and politely demanding exactly what she wants. Her roasts are always juicy, tender, and full of flavor. The pan juices or gravies are also guaranteed of deserving that extra slice of home baked bread to wipe your plate clean with.
Her vegetables are also to die for, never just simply boiled or steamed and served as is. They are always somehow both tender and crisp, lovingly served up with melted butter, sautéed shallots, herbs and such. Her desserts you will always want seconds of, and maybe even thirds. The in-laws in fact were always trying to pry the secrets of how she made her pie crusts, but my mother kept that to herself.
Her soups were always a perfect ratio of goodies to broth. Even though my mother says I’m also a good cook, my soups are always hit and miss, even when I use recipes. Apparently, it is oh so easy to ruin a good soup: Too much of this, not enough of that, even just too much time on the boil, and you get a soup that is either too thin, or, you get something that looks (and tastes) like oatmeal.
My mother is such a good cook, that even things many excellent restaurants buy pre-made, she did well, and often. I’ve already mentioned the bread baking, but she also did pickling of all kinds. From beets, to cucumbers, to green tomato relish, my mother prepared them all, and with produce she herself grew in our garden. Did I forget to mention compotes, jams and jellies? Yep, and far better tasting than anything Smuckers could come up with.
More than my mother’s love of good food, I realized long ago that her cooking was truly an expression of love for her family. As I grew older, she would confide to me she got sick and tired of thinking up of new recipes, especially as one by one, we her children, moved out, and her old recipes no longer were as useful to feed just two people. I suspect her problems of cooking for two, and now just one, have much more to do with the fact that her table is much quieter than it used to be.
When you prepare the next meal for your families, remember to focus on the love and caring it represents. Meals are not just about fueling our bodies, they are also meant to fuel our souls, and bring us together as a family, under a delicious mouthwatering moment in time during our chaotic day. And if you are lucky enough to still have a wonderful master chef and mother still living and cooking for you when you visit, remember to let them know how much you appreciate their efforts.
PS: Here’s a recipe from my grandma, to help you pass on the love!
This recipe is more like a molasses cake that sits on top of a delicious base of cooked apples in a butter and brown sugar sauce. YUMMY!
Part A: Bottom layer ingredients.
¼ cup butter
¾ cup brown sugar
3 apples, cored and thinly sliced (peeling optional)
Part A: Bottom layer preparation:
Melt butter in an 8 inch by 8 inch square baking pan and take off heat. Layer sliced apples in the melted butter, then sprinkle the ¾ brown sugar over the apples and butter in the pan.
Part B: The cake batter ingredients
¼ cup butter
1/3 cup sugar
¼ cup molasses
1 cup flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ginger
½ teaspoon cinnamon
1/3 cup hot water
Part B: The cake batter preparation
In a big bowl, cream ¼ cup butter and 1/3 cup sugar. Then beat the 1 egg and ¼ cup molasses into the creamed butter and sugar. In a separate bowl, mix all the dry ingredients, and then stir the dry ingredients into the creamed butter/sugar/egg/molasses mixture. Add and mix the 1/3 hot water into the batter at the end. Pour the cake batter over the apples in the baking pan.
Preheat oven and bake at 350 degrees Fahrenheit, for 35 to 40 minutes.