When I cooked professionally, people would ask me where I took my chef training. I always said I was self-taught, then followed with the clarification that I was not a chef but a cook. While being true to one, I wasn’t to the other. I didn’t teach myself how to cook, my mother taught me. And recently I got a refresher.
When the lessons began about forty-five years ago I didn’t actually get very dirty. I was more interested in the eating portion of the program. I gave passing interest to a few principles – brown the meat for stew, a splash of milk or cream in the chicken gravy – because it was interesting to know why hers tasted better than the neighbour’s.
How did she know these things? Did her palette demand it or was she just so bored at being a housewife that she found a way to amuse herself? She says the latter.
Some mothers baked but my mother cooked. It accommodated her curiosity. No ground beef on Mondays or chicken on Tuesdays routine; in her prime she was this side of slaughtering the chicken. She is from a generation that knows about New York dressed (which is not a little black number), probably because her mother made frequent trips to the back yard rabbit hutch for their family dinner. Blood is only a generation removed.
My mother was raised in the city, a Canadian of many generations of the Anglo kind but my father was a southern Saskatchewan farm boy with eastern European origins. Their marriage was reasonably common in the social toss up of post war Canada. Their food lineage was the farm-inspired three item meal. You know, a piece of meat, a pile of potatoes (rice was a new comer), and some veg. Gravy on weekends with a roast. All done beautifully, and often captured on Kodachrome.
While my mother was plucking ducks from Chick Burt, a neighbour down the road with a taste for the kill but not the meat, my father was trolling the back roads in our ‘57 blue and white Ford station wagon. They were both kids of the depression. Wasting food was a criminal activity (they were right). Dad brought home smelts, herring, cabbages, apples, whatever was out there neglected or forgotten. Then he processed it, as though the know-how was in his genetic code.
By the early sixties our family’s diet had expanded and was loudly noted by my friends when I came to school with spaghetti breath. Mum was especially interested in the kitchens of the Italian immigrants who landed, like us, in Sault Ste. Marie. They got behind their food, big with the seasonings, ripe with instinct. She made us pizza, lasagna, and spaghetti with meatballs.
The lasagna was true fusion, a find from the United Church cookbook, the kind with the spiral binding made possible by the benevolent sponsorship of, in this case, Soo Dairies. The recipe called for garlic sausage, which Mum interpreted as sliced Ukrainian garlic coil. For years I thought lasagna was little fried meat cookies layered in with tomato sauce and mozzarella. What a surprise when I discovered Italian sausage meat.
My next door neighbour and best friend, Bethy never got any such things. As far as I remember, Bethy only ate the Canadian version of meat cookies and sauce – chopped wieners heated with Libby’s baked beans. Beth’s family was great but I was given to understand that food wasn’t their thing.
Later, on the west coast in the early 70’s, Sunset and Gourmet Magazine, with its signature centre fold, appeared in the house. Things really took off then. For my sixteenth birthday Mum made me a crocenbouche, 16” of piled puffs hand filled with a delicate brandy custard covered in spun sugar. It had a sweet lilt and some of the sugar globbed in the cracks but wow! And I said, “that’s not a birthday cake”. Teenage bitch.
She did Peking duck from scratch, blanching it in boiling water, hanging it in the back shed with an electric fan, and finally cooking it in her Kenmore oven. Authentic would have been for another sort of cook; Mum just gave things a go for interest sake. She learned to debone just about everything but was particularly adept with a leg of lamb. She smoked salmon, grew figs, gathered and served oysters on the half shell, made Oysters Rockefeller when she got bored with that. She lit things on fire, had French onion soup bowls, roasted capons procured from Mme. Chantelou, the teeny tiny egg lady who delivered weekly.
Wherever we lived Mum found a supplier of something local and then she messed with it. Not an altruistic 100 mile diet pursuit, just instinct; hunters, fishermen, and farmers supply good food.
She and my dad had an eye – or nose – for cow pies because they meant mushrooms, which we picked (this was a family outing), sautéed and spread over anything that would support them – steak, toast, a plate. Living on Saltspring Island, and under the guidance of the Nero Wolfe cookbook, she established a family classic when she plastered a leg of local lamb with a mixture of olive oil, thyme, garlic, mustard, ginger, and soy (which is equally good on a bone-in pork loin). She pickled Dungeness crab in the shell, a supremely messy eating experience we loved. Right now, living in the Okanagan, she’s got a nice little wine cellar going – or would if we’d didn’t pillage it so regularly. She used to have an orchardist friend with the most sublime peaches but the woman retired, sold the land and like many orchards it has become a subdivision or a vineyard. And like people have dentists, my mother has always had a butcher, or did until they went extinct.
At 85, Mum has retired from the kitchen but not the dining room. The evening meal is still a lingering affair. I cook and she directs from her orange chair. Recently she took me through kidneys. If you want a steak and kidney pie, is there another way? I was surprised by them; I thought they would neatly pull apart like grapes. They look like they ought to but that white core is something to reckon with. She also showed me how to do her macaroni and cheese, a baked, soft custardy affair that I have never got right. And now I know it’s because I’ve been too light with the eggs.
But the best part of cooking with my mother is the consultation beforehand. We go through her old standbys – Craig Claiborne, Robert Carrier, Jacques Pépin – guys from before my time, cookbooks with few or no pictures. And I bring in my sources, often from the Internet. Though for all its scope, it doesn’t come even close to what I learned from my mother.
I went to stay with my mother for three months in 2010 and wrote this then. It originally appeared on my first and now defunct blog, Peaches From a Woman. She died in March 2015 so it seems appropriate to have it here because without her I wouldn’t be eating and writing like I do. To my mother. To Kay.