My mother was not a great cook. Of course, that never occurred to me when I was growing up. Back in the 1950s and ’60s, I believe no one’s mother was a great cook. Maybe it was caused by the Depression? The War? Betty Crocker?
My mother wasn’t Lucille Ball in the kitchen. She wasn’t dangerous. She wasn’t someone who burned the roast or set herself or one of her children ablaze. (My mother-in-law did that.) We knew kids whose mothers were scary cooks, though. They did nasty things with canned corn. Committed unnatural acts with Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup. Made recipes from Family Circle magazine. Asked to stay for dinner, we sprinted homeward.
We had an actual cookbook in our house (I am sure my brother has it now and he can’t cook, either). It was an ancient missal, a sort of family Bible with old yellowed recipes taped in it from the Boston Evening Traveler. The Traveler ceased publication in 1912, about the time that any interest in cooking ceased in our family.
Although my mother and her mother were not top chefs, they had some culinary obsessions. Chief among these was the prevention of trichinosis. They described it as a condition not unlike rabies that involved frothing at the mouth, baying at the moon and so forth. They dedicated their lives to fighting this wily roundworm. I am alive today because of that.
You perhaps think I am overstating this, but consider that I grew up in a world where people still believed in demonic possession and exorcism and these were not things they acquired from watching movies. Trichinosis was part of the package.
My mother and grandmother thought the only way to avoid death by trichinosis was to overcook everything. Thus all vegetables were boiled to a consistency resembling baby food. You could have eaten most of the meals we ate without teeth.
But nothing was more dangerous than a pork chop. You had your life in your hands with one of those bad boys. Ours were prepared in such a way that they looked like roofing shingles when served. Rare meat meant a trip to the emergency room and a terrible death. We had heard of rare meat but only as something out of National Geographic, something that wild men in New Guinea might eat.
We ate nothing raw except for iceberg lettuce. My mother’s kitchen was a shrine to iceberg lettuce. For some reason this was the one thing that could be eaten raw. Iceberg lettuce was immune to trichinosis. As we were members of the Church of Rome in those heady pre-Roman Catholic Lite days, we ate a lot of fish. Trichinosis knew no bounds and could swim, so as a precaution the fish was also overcooked, although sometimes it was given a continental touch with a few slices of Kraft cheese. A special treat was a dish that consisted of elbow macaroni, ground beef (overcooked) and stewed tomatoes. Readers may know this as American Chop Suey, but we called it “train wreck.” It was the most rarefied fare prepared for our table.
At my convent school, the nuns made sure that for our spiritual well-being the nutritive value of everything we ate had been removed by, you guessed it, boiling. I was an adult before I realized that vegetables were not the color of military fatigues.
When I went off to university in the big world, I ate food that I had never heard of. I lived in Chicago, which had a vibrant Greek town. I ate moussaka and pastichio. I liked Greek food. I liked Greeks. I returned home to report that these tasty dishes did not look hard to prepare. And that the people of Greece had survived trichinosis. Alas, my attempt to prepare moussaka went badly off the rails. This reaffirmed another culinary dictum in our home. Never try anything new. Ever.
Now we live in another world. My parents and my grandmother are no longer alive. (They did not die of trichinosis.) I devour all kinds of dangerous dishes. I love drunken noodles. I eat rare meat.
Now comfort food is popular. But, as I am old enough to remember comfort food the first time around, I find it’s not much comfort. It’s too upscale and expensive. The price of a hot turkey sandwich now would feed a family of four in the old days. I like a BLT, but I don’t have to see the pig’s birth certificate, thank you very much. I am suspicious of comfort food. It tends to be a little twee, as the British say. Too complicated.
How comforting can the food be if you have to have a lecture from a kid in skinny jeans and a flannel shirt?
Last winter, at Woodberry Kitchen, I had a Proustian moment. The waiter was droning on about parsnips. Restaurants were now alive with parsnips. And turnips.
Suddenly it occurred to me that although my mother was not a spectacular cook, we ate these things. We knew all about root vegetables. Apparently, we had been locavores. We just didn’t know it.