Sunday, March 28, 2010

a very good place to start


In my earliest food memory, I was still in a high chair.  I have faint recollections of eating baby food and of clamping down on the rubber coated spoon each time mom fed me a bite.  That spoon stayed put like ‘The Sword in the Stone’.  I remember those spoon wars with a great deal more clarity than what was actually on my plate.  The first genuine meal I recall was not the baby food but mom's creamed chipped beef. As if the name doesn't conjure up enough imagery of its own, an online search yields far worse monikers.  Mom’s rendition of chipped beef consisted of some variety of highly processed meat, a creamy white sauce and sweet green peas. She topped it off with a snowstorm of crumbled saltines. Not only was this my earliest memory of food, but I was actually quite fond of the stuff. For the early palate, the meal had a lot going for it.  Creamy, savory goodness with little peas that popped in the mouth when you bit into them and the satisfying crunch of crumbled saltines.  It was the heart and soul of comfort food.   

It was comfort food that routinely ruled mom's culinary repertoire. She was devoted to the recipes of her upbringing and rarely strayed from classic dishes such as casseroles, beef stroganoff, stuffed bell peppers, pot roast and spaghetti.  Mom was and is an very good cook. Dinner guests were treated to rich beef stew with made from scratch buttermilk biscuits, homemade clam chowder, or marinated flank steak, to name a few.   More challenging was the quest to cook food that pleased her family. We were picky eaters and our hard working, self-employed dad was rarely home for a family meal. In addition, our tiny island grocery stores offered limited resources for the home cook. 

While mom’s cooking nourished our bellies, her baking made us swoon.  She baked gorgeous cakes, toothsome cookies,  luscious pies and yeasty loaves of bread.  Her reputation as a baker was widespread.  I remain partial to her snickerdoodles, apple cake and banana spice bars with lemon icing. She once made an elaborate gingerbread house with stained-glass windows, the works.  Another time, mom took cake decorating classes; a period where I consumed unspecified quantities of the lopsided or otherwise imperfect sugar flowers that hadn’t made the cut. My brother and I reaped the benefits of birthday cakes, such as the one below, that were no doubt the envy of every kid in the grade school set.
Deeply ingrained in my memories of childhood is the image of mom with her feet planted firmly in the kitchen. She was either preparing meals, washing dishes or baking something heavenly.  Without fail, her baked goods possessed that triple threat: they looked, smelled and tasted out of this world.  For mom, baking was nothing short of reassuring.  By following the recipe and adding a measure of love to the mix, she would likely yield a result which satisfied her efforts.   Baking, in its magical way, transformed ingredients in a way that cooking cooking never could.  There was only so much one could do with the wilted produce, frozen foods and canned goods that were the staples of our island diet.  The answer to that dilemma?  Dessert! 

In my post-highchair food memories, I am seated at the hand-me-down poker table that came with our house.  Oh, how mom loathed that table. It was covered in Formica with a pattern of black triangular segments separated by faux wood. Worse than the table were the brown pleather swivel chairs accompanying it. What child could ever resist the gravity-defying, whirligig action of a high backed, swiveling dining chair?! It was an amusement park ride at every meal. My brother and I were scolded, reprimanded and probably threatened within an inch of our lives but we could not resist the temptation to make those chairs spin. We did our best to keep mom out of the loop, stealthily spinning whenever her back was turned.
For mom, that poker table and those chairs represented the equivalent of the fishnet stocking-clad leg lamp from 'A Christmas Story'; though my ever frugal dad was no doubt elated at the prospect of free furniture being thrown in when they bought the house. It was many years before we retired the set in favor of something that could only have been a step up. The breaking point may have been initiated by one particular occasion when I decided to whirl my chair as if it would launch me into outer space. It was not the first time I had attempted this feat but it was, regrettably, the time I did so without setting down my Tupperware tumbler, full to the brim with inky purple grape juice. The paint in our dining room proved quite porous and, for a season, our walls took on a look that was decidedly Jackson Pollock.
In time, we bought a respectable dining set and with a new coat of paint our walls lost their mottled purple look. I suspect that the poker table is still making its rounds in my hometown. Furniture rarely leaves the island.  I, on the other hand, did.


  1. Uncle Dick used to own that table - they called it 'The Million Dollar Table' because that's how much money they figured had passed over it during poker games.

    don't remember the chipped beef/crumbled saltines dish...

  2. I had forgotten that the table was originally Uncle Dick's. Didn't he also own our house at one point in time, before we lived there?

    In my memory, chipped beef was something that mom made when it was just the two of us- Maybe it was while you were at school.

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  4. Dad can't remember if the table was there when we bought the house, or if Uncle Dick gave it to us. Oddly enough, I believe we gave it back to Uncle Dick at some point in the 80's, probably around the time he bought his house on Lakeview Drive. We bought a nicer table and chair set from Bob and Terri Vanderbilt when they moved away from Sitka. I'm converting some family videos to DVD, and one of them we were looking at the other night has the famous clip where you scattered your birthday marbles across that very table while everyone tried to catch them as they sang 'Happy Birthday'.

  5. ooh, i would love to have copies of those home movies once you convert them!