Sunday, April 27, 2008

We Don't Serve Poison in this House

Because my father Bill could barely cook an egg, it fell to Lynda to cook for our family as I grew up, even though she was not exactly enamored of the job. She never anticipated being a domestic, so her cooking and cleaning skills were minimal at best.

Nonetheless, she was more than up to the challenge and managed, over the course of the twenty or so years that I spent in her house, to not only prepare almost every meal every night, even when she was working, but most of those meals were very good, if not particularly inventive.

We had no need of 'cuisine', of course, not the least because this was a time in America' history when we simply didn't know what good food was, but also because as a modest middle American family, we had no ambitions to eat more than American standbys, such as spaghetti and meatballs, macaroni and cheese and pot roast, just to name the top three that were served at our table.

As I look back on it, it is amazing to me that Lynda knew how to cook at all, let alone how to prepare more than the simplest of recipes, for her mother was anything but a competent cook, according to Lynda, who said that she knew how to open a can, but little else. So, this meant that her culinary skills were all self-taught, which is perfectly in keeping with her character -- if you don't know how to do something, just learn it!

This also meant that the science, if you will, behind the cuisine was pretty much nonexistent, for she never used a recipe nor actually measured anything. My father often said that she cooked by color. Let's see, what color goes well with red? Spaghetti, being red, requires the color of green peas to balance out the plate, or so the theory went, and consequently we had green peas with spaghetti every time. Even though it was also green, broccoli was assigned to accompany macaroni, which was golden yellow of course, while pot roast was meant to be served with root vegetables, or, from Lynda's perspective, orange (carrots), brown (potatoes) and yellow (onions) were the designated, 'appropriate' sides. While the absence of variation may seem to have rendered our meals rather boring, in fact we relished the predictablity of the fare, and though we often complained, it was more about the portion size, especially of the dreaded vegetables, than the taste of the food itself.

Of course, David and I were not inclined to enjoy vegetables, so even had they been more esoteric than peas,broccoli and potatoes, we would doubtless have railed against them anyway. In fact, we were lucky to have been subjected to only the 'normal' fruits and vegetables growing up in Texas, for if she had discovered, say for example kolrahbi root or fennel, we would have surely had something to really complain about. In fact, the most exotic vegetable that she prepared and served to us back then would have been the dreaded rutabagas or turnips.

Dreaded, I say, because I could not have hated these two root vegetables more, but Lynda insisted on serving them in spite of knowing how very much I detested them. She even attempted to disguise them by mixing them in with potatoes, but I was never fooled, in spite of her denials. It was not her custom to practice deception like this, even if we complained about the way it tasted, we always knew that the food was a fresh and well-prepared as it could be. After all, she did indeed love her family more than she disliked cooking, and I do believe that the love won out every day.

So, just to be clear and entirely fair, remember that Lynda was a very good cook.

When we did complain, therefore, the injustice of our wails was most annoying to Lynda, who justifiably felt that were were being unfair to be critical of one who knew only how to prepare food with the best of intent. Her retort to our misery was a simple and direct rebuttal to our false claims of being fed substandard food:

"We don't serve poison in this house!"

She was right, of course, but sometimes we were unable to contain our complaints, even knowing that it would upset Mom and exact the classic phrase. Still, there was the one time...

Lynda had a tradition, actually, for many years, of serving pot roast on Sundays. Now, whether this was for convenience or not isn't up to debate, as it is clear that the time element involved meant that it could only be done on that day. We had no set meal schedule that I can recall, but I do remember that Sunday was pot roast day. Well, it was, until the fateful day.

You must understand that we looked forward to this meal, and I recall it being served many times to my delight. For one thing, it was meat. We didn't have meat every night of the week, not for health reasons at first --that came later, after Bill had a heart attack -- but for economic ones. Quite simply the same is still true today, meat is the most expensive part of our food budget.

Now I use the word budget in the rhetorical sense, but my Mother literally budgeted her money, and it was, for the most part, her money because my father never held a steady job after his heart attack in 1970. And meat was served in one of three ways: steak, which was served rarely, and I mean that not in pun but literally, for that was my father's preference in cooking temperature; ground meat, as in hamburgers or chili or spaghetti; and the subject of this tale, pot roast.

Though it took a long time to cook, the dish didn't actually require much time to prepare, which, of course, was an important prerequisite for any dish she made. This took less than half an hour, from start to oven. She would rinse and dry everything, including the meat, which she would flour lightly and sear in a hot pan, filling the room with the aroma of burning fat and setting up the anticipation of eating the slow-cooked, falling-apart tender beef, mixed with fatty meat juice and crumbled potatoes till I could stand no more.

That was the good part about food in our house. If you wanted it and would eat it, you could have as much as you wanted. This rule was suspended, or amended, I should say, on steak night, because we always had to balance out the meat with vegetables and you were always required to eat everything on your plate. But on pot roast night, it was easy to get as much of the beloved meat as I liked, and so I did. I liked the taters pretty good too.

The potatoes went in skin and all, while the onions and the carrots had to be peeled. This was my job, along with the task of collecting the peelings in a bag and delivering them to our never-never-used-for-anything-but-peelings 'compost' pile back behind the garage. We had the compost ritual in all of our dwellings, and the use was always the same. My mother never had a garden, and my father could kill, as I can, a houseplant by simply being assigned to care for it.

Once the meat was seared, in was placed, along with a small amount of water and the onions and carrots, into the oven. The potatoes she added later, along with a bit more water to create the much desired 'juice' that went so well with the potatoes and carrots. When it emerged from the oven to 'rest' while we set the table and washed our hands, the aroma was killer, making me rush through the pre-dinner chores with delightful anticipation.

My father always served the meal. The plates were always stacked in front of him, and it was his task to portion and serve each person, beginning, as was the custom, with the youngest. Naturally, this was most often my brother, David, but also most often I was next. We were required to wait till everyone at the table was served before we could take a bite, but we often sneaked a bit while Mom wasn't looking. She was the enforcer of this rule, since my father always served himself last, and it was considered respectful, if not actually bearable, to wait till he was served and seated before we could begin.

My first bite, as always, was of the meat. Lynda, on the other hand, preferred vegetables, and would begin with the potatoes and carrots, so when the flavor of the meat first hit my mouth, it wasn't something she was experiencing simultaneously, so the expressions on our faces, and our impressions of the food were also quite naturally far apart in that first moment. My father and brother, however, shared my preference for things carnal, and were indeed sharing my confusion, if not the actual pain I was so immediately shrieking about.

The worst offense one could commit at table, at least as far as the food was concerned, was to indiscretely spit it out. It was allowed to spit out some 'gristle' or 'bone' which often led to my brother discovering bones in food that had none (a long running family joke), but one was required to use one's napkin to conceal the actual act, and place it on the side of one's plate for the duration. It was never allowed to simply spit out something, obviously and directly into the center of one's plate for godsake, but that is exactly what I did. I have no recollection of what I actually said, but it was enough to get Lynda to try the meat, and that in turn, was enough to render the old saw irrelevant for a brief moment.

Although it did indeed taste, to me, like we were finally being poisoned, what in fact had happened was that, on that particular Sunday morning, she had accidentally 'floured' the meat with baking powder. It's not clear whether she accidentally mixed it in with the flour or simply did the whole thing in baking powder, but the flavor, if one can call it that, was unmistakably, shall we say, chemical?

How to describe the experience of 'eating' baking powder? Dry? Have you ever just had a bit placed on your tongue? Try it, but be sure to have a glass or two of water on hand. You'll need it as you mouth dries out, then puckers, then slowly collapses in on itself. Never, ever 'eat' it, and never, ever 'flour' a post roast (or anything else, for that matter) with it.

Needless to say, it only took one taste for Lynda to concede that the meal was ruined, and my recollection fades after that. Though I am sure we didn't go hungry, I am equally positive that we didn't eat that pot roast that night. Now, I also have a memory of going to eat at a McDonalds one night long ago. The rareness of that event is equal to the rareness of the poisoned pot roast, so there may be a connection...

1 comment:

David said...

C'mon, now! I never found bones in anything...

My memory of Mom's cooking nearly aligns with yours, though I remember far more "red" meals than anything else. "Red", as in "covering everything in tomato sauce to make it seem palatable"... But that could just be a blurred together compilation of those many dinners around the table.

I think we all had foods that we didn't like (you with your rutabagas and turnips, me with the awful vegetable/barley soup that I endured for far too long...), but the warmth and family time around that table erased all else that might have distracted from our little place in the world.

Even better, I remember rare times when we would go out - how could anyone forget the Zuider Zee? Baskin-Robbins when it used to be good? Even Luby's became something wonderful, despite the translucent roast beef, watery (and salty and stringy) green beans, smooth as paste mashed potatoes and desserts, all kinds of desserts.

One area I will differ with you is Dad's cooking. You were gone by the time he started making almost every meal, after we moved to England. Mom was out on the road every night, selling to the troops, while Dad and I were home. He would have dinner on the table for her when she came home, early or late, hungry or not. He became quite good at the few things he could do (I still fondly recall his boiled carrots with butter and honey) and I think it meant a lot to Mom that he took on that little work, despite everything else that he didn't or wouldn't do.

Where did you pick up your cooking skills? I learned the hard way how to do everything that now seems so natural to me - flavors, techniques, timing, invention, etc. But you made me realize I still combine colors on the plate just like Mom did... how funny.