And God Said “Thou Shalt Eat Thine Casserole Without Complaint”

picky-eater

Today is the first Friday of Lent. Catholics and other religions mark the 40 days before Easter (actually 46, but Sundays aren’t included) with various forms of atonement and self-denial. The rules have relaxed considerably with time. When my parents were children the devout were still into some serious fasting, whereas during my childhood, things centered mostly on not eating meat on Fridays. Thankfully, children are no longer terrified that they’ll spend eternity in hell for a beef jerky.

I was raised Catholic, but I no longer practice. Some things, however, have remained etched in my psyche. If I were to pop into a Catholic mass, muscle memory would take over and I could recite my lines perfectly. And, to this day, I feel guilty if I eat meat on Fridays during Lent. Continue reading

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Let the Feeding Frenzy Begin!

I have some very caring and kind reasons why Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. You can read about them here. Now on to the reason we can all agree upon:  A holiday that’s all about eating and not buying gifts? Yes, please!

I have memories of being awoken before dawn by the smell of onions being sautéed in butter coming from the kitchen. That meant that Mom was starting the stuffing that would fill the bird. Once the turkey was stuffed and in the oven, she’d go back to bed until breakfast time. The aromas would continue throughout the morning as she prepared the rest of the meal.

mom

I never realized what a good cook my Mom was until I ate at other people’s houses. She was a master at roasting and our turkeys were always so juicy with the skin brown and crackly. She’d pull out her electric knife and carve it in the kitchen rather than at the dining room table. We couldn’t wait and would steal bits of meat while she threatened to amputate a finger or two.

It might just be me, but I swear that an electric knife’s motor actually has a faint, distinctive smell. Ok. I might be a weirdo – but that smell, coupled with the sound makes my mouth water. Kind of like the smell of our old plastic Christmas tree is more nostalgic for me than the smell of pine. Yes, I’m warped. It must be a result of being raised in the suburbs in the 1960s and 1970s.

Anyway, back to the food!  The turkey was just the beginning. A few of Mom’s side dishes will be forever be my favorites. Her stuffing was very simple and she didn’t use a recipe: day-old bread, cubed and tossed with egg, poultry seasoning, salt and pepper and those sautéed onions and melted butter. No celery, no chestnuts, no oysters. She’d take her wedding ring off and place it by the sink and smoosh it all together with her hands. It was so basic, but so flavorful. It was so good that my sister and I would fight over it – especially the leftovers which we loved to eat cold. I’ve come close to recreating it a few times, but it’s never quite the same.

stuffing
This looks similar to Mom’s stuffing, minus those green bits that I suspect are celery.

A am not a fan of sweet potatoes or yams, but I would eat the ones my mother made. I know most of America goes with marshmallows on top, but not us. Mom went with canned yams but then added pats of butter and huge scoops of brown sugar on top. They’d cook in the oven until the sugar and butter formed a gooey, caramelized mush that was absolutely divine. I’d mostly just put a spoonful of goo on my plate, but occasionally I’d end up eating part of an actual yam.

side-candied-yams-2010-04-27
Mom could doctor-up a can of yams like nobody’s business. This looks similar, but there’s too much yam and not enough “goo.”

And last but not least, desert. I’ve never been much of a sweet eater, so the pecan or pumpkin pie didn’t interest me. No holiday meal would be complete at our house without Mom’s wine jello. The ingredients included these huge, juicy black cherries – canned, I think, and Mogen David wine. When she died last year, I took a box of her cookbooks and recipes. I need to find the recipe for this stuff.

jello
This looks like her cherry/wine jello. I seriously need to find that recipe!

Along with all of these goodies we’d have rolls, a relish tray of olives, pickles, and carrot sticks, cranberry sauce – both canned and “real,” and some vegetables. I actually remember the first time she tried out a new recipe for something called green bean casserole. It quickly became a fixture as it did in millions of other households, eventually referred to as simply “GBC” at our house.

My Mom was a great cook, but she liked to work alone. We were usually shooed out of the kitchen so we rarely saw the magic happen. We were only called upon when it was time to help plate things and put them on the table. And do the dishes of course.

Dinner would be at 1 or 2:00. We’d come out of our food comas at about 6 or 7:00 just long enough for cold turkey and Miracle Whip sandwiches on white bread for supper – with a lump of cold stuffing on the side. The best!

In the years before she died, my Mom developed dementia. Making some of those dishes was a muscle memory for her. We’d all pitch in to get them cooked and on the table. , it was still very much her meal.

Last year, less than a month before she died, my sister, brother, and I, along with our spouses, had dinner with my Mom and our Aunt Ruth at the assisted living center where they lived. This year, we’ll do the same thing again with our aunt. We’ll reminisce about our childhood holidays. There will even be a new traditions – Aunt Ruth will no doubt complain, as she and Mom did last year, that at least one dish isn’t cooked “right.”

It won’t be the same as the Thanksgivings of our childhoods, but we’ll be together. My sister and I will be sure to argue about leftover stuffing – and that’s something to be thankful for.

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Mom, when she and Dad were newlyweds. A time and place where I’m sure some of our traditions were born.