A cook divided
Married to a man who liked his eggs well done, her mom would find a moister culinary path.
Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File
One morning, back in the early 1970s, I found my newly divorced mother embarking on a new culinary path. It was just scrambled eggs, but loaded with – as we began to call it – "stuff": mushrooms, ham, and scallions. And the eggs looked different – moister, somehow.
"Want to try some?" she offered. I had previously refused to eat her scrambled eggs; they were dry, with brown edges, and they smelled burned. But, curious about this "new" dish, I tentatively forked a mouthful. Wow!
"Why didn't you ever make eggs like this before?" I asked.
"I made them the way your father liked them," was her measured reply.
That was a revelation: Even though my mother did all the cooking, what she cooked (and ate) was not necessarily her choice. To please my father, she daily violated her own taste buds. Such was life for wives in the '50s and '60s.
My dad, who never quite got over the Depression, gave my mother a very small food allowance. She became adept at making meals stretch. While we were growing up, she frequently served a dish called "goulash." Nothing like the real Hungarian food it was named after, this was – at least in our family – a mixture of ground beef, onions, potatoes, canned tomatoes, and frozen corn, cooked in the electric skillet. Tuna-noodle casserole was another favorite, along with a dish involving chicken dipped in sour cream and crushed corn flakes and baked.
After my parents split up, they developed new culinary selves. The kinds of meals my mother was now making symbolized for me her break with the past and her steps into a new life.
The first summer after the divorce, she served steak a lot. Steak! My two brothers and I would look at each other wide eyed when we sat down at the table. It was a luxury we never had when my father was there. My mother served up this new fare without comment or smugness. She was calm – beatific, maybe – sending off vibes that we were all right, would be all right, and that it wouldn't kill us to have small luxuries every once in awhile.
Since then, while she experimented with Asian cooking, she continued to be drawn to hearty food cooked in Crock-Pots first, then Slow Cookers.
My father, on the other hand, went in a different direction. Like many men of his generation, he had never learned to cook. But now he had to. I don't remember him cooking anything for me, but I did see a sad, slim cookbook lying around his garage apartment bachelor pad: "Cooking for One."
A few years later, he married Anne, a divorced mother of two teenage boys, who was a fan of both Julia Child and M.F.K. Fisher. In those early years, she treated us to more exotic fare, like pork chop and rice casserole, flavored with orange juice. And fabulous, rich desserts, like Black Bottom Booze Bars, filled with cream and butter.
But in the late '70s, they decided to eat healthier foods. Out went rice, potatoes, and bread. Even meat, for a while. In came kale, Brussels sprouts, and chard. My stepmother made him buy her a Cuisinart to help with the endless chopping of vegetables. Soon, my father became a lean, sinewy guy, who backpacked in the Sierras, ran three miles a day, climbed 10 flights of stairs at his office and used his Nordic Track religiously. (He still does; the same one.)
I've inherited both my parents' culinary traditions and added my own. I would prefer to cook more like my dad's side: tofu and brown rice, kale and chard. But my picky teenager favors white rice over brown and pasta over all. Tofu is a personal affront. As a busy single mother, in desperation at times I'd revert to what I knew – comfort food that would last several meals: meatloaf, tuna-noodle casserole, and that old standby, goulash.
Now, many kinds of cuisine grace my table. My cookbooks include Julia Child, "The Joy of Cooking," the "Moosewood Cookbook," some cookbooks for parents, and several vegan and vegetarian books. All bristle with sticky notes.
One night it's something Thai involving lemon grass and coconut milk (my disgusted daughter will make herself a quesadilla). The next night it'll be my own wacky goulash: leftover rice, sautéed with onions, edamame, frozen corn, and frozen meatballs – flavored with that last half jar of salsa. I served that last night and she squealed with pleasure.
These days, when I make scrambled eggs, I embrace both my parents' palates. When the eggs are just done, moist and glistening, I take out my portion. Then I keep cooking the rest until they're dry and brown. Those I serve to my daughter. And we're both happy.