My mother was a cook between Gordon Ramsey of Hell’s Kitchen and Martha Stewart. Mom didn’t cook fancy dishes like souffles or ever heard of beef Wellington. But what she did prepare for her family was good or at least we thought so. Even though I’ve lived most of my life in Indiana, we ate Southern delicacies’ like fried okra, beans and cornbread, or fried chicken with mashed potatoes and gravy. Vegetables always came from a can and it was rare to have fresh fruit. Nearly everything was fried. When Dad came home from work, supper was always waiting for him on the table. Except Fridays, this was grocery shopping day. She would always let us pick out whatever we wanted for dinner that evening. My brother, sister, and I always chose frozen pizza and Dad wanted steak. The best part was that we could have a Coke or a Pepsi with dinner. Back then it was a special treat to drink a pop because the rest of the week we drank milk or water. We rarely ate dinner out and if we did it was at McDonald’s or a place similar, besides nothing can beat home cooking. All of us sat at the table to eat together and talk. There were no cell phones, iPods, or computers to distract us then. Those were the best memories for me.
Mom was 4 feet 11 ½ inches tall, with short dark brown hair, intense blue eyes, and perfect teeth. She had a short temper to go along with her small stature. More than once she said to me that I wasn’t too big for her to knock me down. I’m not tall either and wouldn’t really have that far to go before hitting the ground.
When Mom was about four years old, her mother passed away from TB. Within six months my grandfather married another woman. This created problems for Mom because she was not given a “mothers love” that she so desperately needed. Lack of self confidence, poverty, a preacher’s kid, and fearing that others will make fun of her, my mother repeated the 7th grade three times. During that time, a child went from grade school to high school. It was the early 50’s and life was very different than it is now. She never went on to high school. Feeling trapped at home with a step-mother who forced my mother to help take care of the children, my mom married the first man that came along. That man was my father. She was sixteen and he was twenty. She desperately wanted to leave the prison of her father’s home in hopes to have her own life.
At sixteen, she couldn’t have had that much experience cooking. During the early years of her marriage, she relied heavily upon cookbooks for the basics. As time went on her skills improved. Then her family started to grow. When she was twenty, I was born. Then a year and a half later, my brother came along. Randall was a very finicky eater as a child. Mom would try all kinds of things just to get him to eat. She would mash up a banana and mix it with his egg hoping that he would eat breakfast. As you know, canned spinach is like mush. In order to get my brother to eat it, she would mix bacon grease and egg into the boiling green blob, trying to convince him that it was really good to eat. He never fell for it. She would find rejected food underneath the sofa cushions all of the time. There would be peas, green beans, and even fried chicken. Really? Fried chicken? What boy doesn’t like fried chicken?
The best of her cooking that I remember was when we all lived together on Elm Street. The 70’s were the best years. She would scour magazines looking for recipes and in a few days we would have some new dish to try. At Christmas, we would have barbecue ribs instead of the traditional ham or turkey dinner. The ribs were so tender that the meat fell off the bone; her potato salad and coleslaw were exceptional. We had pot roasts, baked chicken, and Uncle Ben’s wild rice salad to name a few. There was only one recipe that I could hardly stomach. Her vegetable soup was made with a tomato juice base and it was awful. The rest of the family loved the soup, but I cringed whenever she made it. Eventually, I told her that I didn’t like it. She still made the soup, but I was given something different to eat than the rest of the family. This was the only time one of us was given an alternative. Some time later, I asked her to sit down with me so that I could write down my favorite recipes. I bought a couple of blank books and together we wrote them down.
As soon as I started working, I began collecting recipes. She sparked the love of cooking within me. I would often spend evenings and well into the night trying new recipes. I ventured beyond the borders of our own cuisine and began trying dishes from other cultures. My dad would take a bite of carrot from a plate of fried rice and declared that it wasn’t “done.” We laughed and told him that the way it is cooked is the way it is supposed to be. My Mom knew that she had succeeded when they came home from vacation one year and I had an elaborate supper waiting for them when they arrived home. As they drove up to the house I was putting dinner on the table. I made biscuits, fried chicken, gravy, corn and mashed potatoes.You should have seen the smile on her face that day. It was priceless.
In the early 80’s life changed. My father passed away in 1984 and then in 1993 my mother went to be with him. Every once in a while, I will take out the books and stare at her writing. I place my finger on the page, and then move my finger along the curve of each letter, remembering her, missing all of the moments we could have had with each other since.