Forgetfulness of things past
Copyright © 2020 Nat Segaloff
Do you have foods that died with your mother? You know what I mean: meals that only she knew how to make and, try as you might in all the years since she passed, you can never get it quite right? Maybe you can’t find the same ingredients, or – more probably – you can find them but modern agrabiz has rendered them tasteless.
Is there one dish above all others that she used to set in front of you and that you wish you could try just once more?
When my mother died, long after my father, she left me the usual house full of furniture, clothing, and a lifetime collection of tchotchkes and memories. She also left me a freezer full of her cooking.
First I need to explain that my mother was a good cook. Not a great one, but a solidly good one. Mostly – in the way of the era in which she was brought up and lived -- meat-and-potatoes. For her, a breaded veal chop was adventurous. She was a master of our family’s spice-rubbed roast chicken (which I still make for my nephews and over which they go nuts), and she turned out a splendid rump roast, although her brisket was so salty that it made your head shrink.
My mother’s specialty was soup: potato soup made with an old prime rib bone, chicken noodle (not matzo ball, for some reason), and vegetable soup. Especially her vegetable soup. It was her stand-by, and everyone she served it to became addicted. I grew up to the sound of a pressure cooker sputtering its cargo of future vegetable soup. It began with marrow bones, canned tomatoes, onions, and one of those tubular store-bought packages of soup mix with barley, dried vegetables, and powdered bouillon, only she threw away the powdered bouillon because her soup didn’t need it. It also had a layer of fat floating on the surface of the bowl that burned your mouth even before the soup itself went down. It was her signature dish.
Every meal at our house began with soup, even in the middle of summer. It was always hot soup, too; none of this chilled gazpacho or vichyssoise for my mother. And a salad -- a plain lettuce salad -- served first, like we do in America, not last, as in Europe. .
My mother was a school teacher but she still found time for the kitchen. And if she loved anything in the kitchen, she loved her freezer. I guess this happens naturally if you were born in an age when the ice man still cameth, then her family worked its way up to a fridge with a condenser on top, and finally to the kind where the freezer unit is inside the refrigerator part, about the size of a shoe box, and it could barely freeze an ice cube tray let alone keep ice cream hard. The progression was such that, when my mom, late in life, got a refrigerator with a separate freezer on top, a new world opened up for her.
From that point on, everything she cooked went into the freezer. Sometimes it didn’t even get to touch a plate. She would get into a cooking frenzy and cook two or three things, then pack it up in Reynolds Wrap to freeze for later. (After all, it might go bad in the ice box, but not in the freezer. And, yes, we still called it an ice box.) Her freezer looked like a tin mine and she never labeled anything. She alone could tell the chicken legs from the leftover corned beef. I always wondered if it was by the wrinkles. “Smooth? Oh, that’s chicken. Bunched and wrinkled? Salted brisket. Hey, how did that spaghetti casserole get in there? ”
She had lived through the Great Depression and knew that banks could fail but her freezer would not. As long as there was food in it, she would never starve. She would rotate the stock by cooking something fresh, freezing it, and then removing something old from the freezer to thaw and serve. Her way of thawing something (this was before she had a microwave) was to dump it into a pot on high heat until just enough of the outside got warm enough to serve. One night I brought a friend over and she decided to bring out a duck she had cooked anywhere from three to six months ago. She threw it in a high oven and, when she brought it to the table, the first quarter inch was hot but the inside was still ice. We had ducksicle. My friend was too polite to complain, but I did (nicely) and we all had a laugh on it before going out for Chinese.
I was living in Boston when my mother died living in Maryland so, naturally, I came home to take care of things. All my memories of home were of my parents being there. Now it was cold and empty and devoid of the family smell that always greeted me. Does that make sense? She had taken sick and died quickly, in hospital, and never came home again. The night after her funeral, I sat alone in the house, just me and Jack Daniels, awash in memories. When it occurred to me that I was hungry I opened the fridge. It was still stocked and—like guys do – I kept closing it and opening it thirty seconds later thinking that its contents would have changed. Then I realized that I wasn’t very hungry. Finally, on a hunch, I opened the freezer. In it – once I cleared away the half-chicken and used brisket -- was a Tupperware container of her vegetable soup. I didn’t have the heart to eat it, not just then. Instead, encased in ice packs, I carried it with me back to Boston and, a year later, on the anniversary of her death, I thawed it and had it for dinner. I set the table for two as if she was there and pretended she had just made it for me, enjoying, for the last time, the taste of my mother’s vegetable soup.
It doesn’t matter that I have the recipe and that I can still buy the ingredients she used. It’s no surprise that I’ve tried making it and it doesn’t taste the same. Not even close.
She cooked other things, too, but it’s the vegetable soup that lingers. I miss it almost as much as I miss her.
Now I ask you: what are the foods that your mother cooked for you that remind you of home and your youth? Have you tried recreating them yourself? What happened?
I don't write on spec, but every now and then something gets me fired up and I can't stop my fingers from hitting the keyboard.