by Carol A. Westbrook
When I see a restaurant promising their food is “just like Mom's home cooking,” I am not interested. My mother was not a great cook. As a matter of fact, most other Boomers (my generation) feel the same way. We remember meals where many of the ingredients came out of cans or from the freezer. Microwave ovens hadn't yet been invented. Birthday cakes were made from a Betty Crocker mix, while we dined on spaghetti O's, or white bread smeared with margarine, holding 2 slices of Oscar Mayer bologna. Pie was constructed using a crust mix in a box, and apples from a can. A typical meal served to company: salad of head lettuce with Kraft French dressing, green beans from a can, instant mashed potatoes to accompany the well-done roast beef, and store-bought ice cream for dessert. (Mom drew the line at Jell-O with embedded canned fruit salad and Dream Whip topping.) Worse yet, being Catholic meant that our Friday meals were meatless, so we would have to look forward to Kraft macaroni and cheese from a box, meatless spaghetti with canned sauce, fish sticks, or tuna fish casserole made with a can of that all-purpose sauce, Campbell's cream of mushroom soup. (To this day I can't tolerate tuna fish or Campbell's mushroom soup).
You get the picture. American cuisine was relatively impoverished in the early 1950's. We were just coming out of WWII, and many war-time brides had grown up learning to cook when there were shortages of crucial ingredients–sugar, eggs, butter, meat–so poor quality food was a way of life. The war effort required rations for thousands of men, and this spurred the development of many ways to preserve food in a ready-to-eat condition, from canned beans to Spam, to boxed cheese sauces and dehydrated potatoes.
After the war ended, the soldiers came home to settle down and have children–lots of them–giving rise to the term “Baby Boomer,” and the wives gave up their jobs to stay home. Moms like mine had large families to feed, and welcomed these cooking short cuts, especially when they were cheaper than making them from scratch. As a large Catholic family, with only one income and parochial school tuition to pay, our food budget was exceptionally tight. Mom had to be very parsimonious about her food choices; we didn't eat out or take in, and cheap McDonald's food hadn't yet been invented. Spam was cheaper than beef (we ate a lot of Spam in our home, since my dad, a WWII veteran, loved it!). Canned vegetables were cheaper than fresh produce except, of course, in the summer, when our large backyard city garden produced a bumper crop of beans, tomatoes, zucchini, peppers and peas. At these times we shared and traded with neighbors and friends, or took family outings that included stops in orchards and farm stands. I remember when we purchased our first deep freezer, enabling us to stock up on meat and TV dinners when they were on sale, or freeze our surplus garden vegetables –no canning for the modern wife.
But one of the most important driving forces of the gastronomic impoverishment of America, and of my mother's reputation as a poor cook, was the post-war rise of a strong, pro-American, anti-foreign sentiment. Instead of assimilating the wealth of cuisines that were present in this great melting pot of a country, we wanted to put it behind us, or to Americanize what we found, e.g. pizza. Forget ethnic flavors, and spices–they were unpatriotic. I listened to a video of a Julia Child show from about 1963, who said, “it's not hard to get ingredients such as thyme, but you will may have to ask your grocer to order it for you! ” Hard to believe you couldn't buy spices then, isn't it? Mom only used salt, pepper, and a rare pinch of oregano.
My mother was born in the US, the daughter of two Polish immigrants, but she considered herself fully American. She never spoke Polish at home to us, though she was fluent. Like other ethnic Americans of the time, she considered it unpatriotic to cook her native specialties, the food she grew up with. She was not a very good American-style cook, but she was a very good Polish cook. She would never serve this stuff to American company, though. It was too foreign, and it was peasant food. (Ironically, today my dinner guests truly enjoy my “gourmet” Polish cooking!)
My mother learned to cook from her mother, my “Busia,” a Polish peasant who immigrated at age 14, worked as a domestic, and could barely speak English. Our Polish food included stuffed cabbage, or green peppers (from our garden); the crispiest potato pancakes; beet soup (Borscht); chicken soup that cooks all day and fills the air with a smell that will make you anxious for dinner; beef soup with garden vegetables, and pierogie, those lovely noodles stuffed with cheese and potatoes or fresh fruit; bread made with eggs and raisins (rare–Dad hated raisins); sausages, and pickles of all varieties. And sautéed fresh wild mushrooms, which Busia hunted in the Chicago woods when we had family picnics. (See picture). Poland has an extensive vegetarian cuisine due to the scarcity of meat, which I would have welcomed on meatless Fridays instead of Kraft cheese.
Polish food was often served when we had extended family gatherings for traditional church holidays, such as Christmas and Easter. Mom was known to be a great host, and more often than not these feasts would be at our house, while our friends and relatives brought more dishes or desserts–homemade of course. Of these, Easter had the best food. The week before the holiday, Dad and several other relatives would gather in the basement with 100 pounds of pork shoulder and make sausage for the holiday meal, seasoned only with garlic and marjoram. The Easter morning brunch started at 8 am, after sunrise service at day, and it lasted all day, with friends and relatives dropping by with their colored eggs, sweets, ham, all varieties of bread and anything else you could think of. And lots of drink of course! Picture: New Year's Day, c 1958, at Grandma's.
Many of the great chefs of the world say that their most important influence was their mother, who taught them everything they know about food and cooking. My mother learned from her mother. And we learned from Mom as we pitched in to help get dinner for six on the table ready by the time Dad arrived from work. And like the great chefs, she taught us to use the right cooking utensils, to set the table properly, to be a good host, and to clean up. Most importantly, we learned from her that a meal is best prepared with many hands working together, and is best enjoyed when shared with other, in a happy setting with friends and family.
Happy Mother's Day, Mom and Busia. We miss you!
Recipes taught to me by my grandmother “Busia”
1.Busia's Braised Red Cabbage
Using a covered saucepan with a heavy bottom, fry 3 rashers of bacon that you have cut into small pieces until there is plenty of oil and the bacon has crisped. Coarsely chop 1/2 of a red cabbage, and sauté it in the oil, stirring frequently, mixing in the bacon. Add some water (about 1/2 cup), salt and pepper liberally, and then cover and cook slowly, adding just enough water to steam the cabbage until it is soft, about 10 or 15 minutes, being careful not to burn it, then turn off and keep covered. When ready to serve, heat it again and stir in about 1 tsp. of sugar (to taste) and a few tablespoons of vinegar. When you add the vinegar the cabbage will turn a beautiful red color, and it is ready to serve.
2.Mouth-Watering Chicken Soup
The secret is to enhance the aroma but not the flavor with a small addition of clove and allspice.
Put a whole chicken and its giblets (if included), omitting the liver, into a large soup pot with a cover. Cut up coarsely, and then put into the pot, a whole onion, 2 carrots, and 2 stick of celery including the leaves. Put in enough water to cover the chicken, and then add about 2 – 4 teaspoons of salt (you can adjust salt later), 1 bay leaf, 2 whole cloves, about 4 large allspice, and a half-teaspoon of whole peppercorns. Bring to a boil, then cover and reduce heat. It is done in about 45 minutes, when the chicken is tender enough to come off the bone.
To serve, remove the meat to a platter and gently cut into serving-size pieces, reserving some smaller pieces and the giblets. Serve the chicken separately from the soup, putting the soup in individual bowls to which you have added smaller pieces of chicken and giblets, and some of the vegetables. Alternatively, serve a piece of chicken and some soup together in a larger bowl. In either case, pass around a bowl of noodles.