Last week I came across a black notebook with grease-splattered pages about the size of a large paperback book. On each page is a recipe written in my mother's warm, yet tidy, handwriting.
The notebook contains all of my mother's go-to recipes —Spaghetti Loaf Casserole, Tuna Rollups, Pigs in the Blanket, Forgotten Cookies (I should skip the rest of the column and just give you the recipe for this one — perhaps another time).
This was definitely cooking from a different era. Recipes include a lot of canned Campbell mushroom soup, mayonnaise, crisco, and butter by the stick. Jell-O is represented in specialty molds and tiny marshmallows, as well.
Remember this was after World War II and American housewives were supplied with all sorts of shortcuts in the kitchen to make life simpler, and they loved all those conveniences. There was a plentiful supply of food, too, and no longer was rationing an issue, although like my mother, these women remained frugal for the rest of their lives.
Since my mother cooked from her head and not strictly from the actual recipe, I remember how difficult it was for her to write each one down for me when I went off on my own to my first apartment. She had been a Home Economics major in college, and for her, cooking was a breeze.
“A little bit of this, or that,” or “about” for a time limit on baking, was not so easy to follow as a novice cook trying to get the old and familiar dish like mom made. I struggled through the recipes often with a spoon in one hand and the phone in the other consulting her wisdom. Patiently, mom would “talk” me through the process, and I would muddle along with my entire kitchen counter in disarray from repeated attempts at assembling a casserole.
When the results were in, I never could make any recipe the way mom’s dishes tasted. Perhaps, it was more than just her cooking skills. There was much to say about coming home to her table and having her loving hands prepare a meal. I appreciated her expertise so much more as an adult.
In fact, during a long eight-hour drive from Upstate to Long Island, I already would smell the traditional ham and sweet potato casserole that we would have that evening as my welcome home meal. It got me through old Route 17’s windy roads in a rural woodsy setting, and the heavier traffic closer to the city where my driving skills were raised up a notch.
I pulled the notebook off the shelf and dusted it off. I hadn’t looked at it in a long time. Just reading the recipes was enough to unlock memories.
Like how I would come home from school to the smell of a fresh apple pie baking and a little light conversation with her. Mom was an excellent listener, and often I would pour out my troubles while she was finishing up. Looking back, my issues were petty, but at the time they seemed immense as a young girl growing up.
Like how effortlessly it seemed she put together a holiday meal and somehow she managed to feed a ton of relatives. I never paid enough attention to the planning and the shopping days ahead in order for everything to run smoothly. She would be up at dawn of the feast day getting the turkey in the oven, before I would make my first sleepy-eyed appearance to peel the potatoes.
Like how everyone waited for her cranberry orange relish mold that had just the right tang to it from the orange juice and ginger ale, or some other unnamed spirit, that was her little secret to be set down in front of them at the picnic table. It was one of those dependable dishes like deviled eggs that made for a perfect outing.
Like how she would whip up a batch of oatmeal raisin cookies, skin the chicken breasts and mash potatoes in a quick ten minutes. The entire clan from far and wide considered Aunt Eleanor as the best multitasker in the family hands down. No one came close to her in second place. And, she would appear at the meal in her best outfit, hair curled and lipstick on as if she had been prepping herself instead of the meal for the last hour and a half.
Like how she would save up her energy when she was older to teach her granddaughter how to make her special Christmas cut-out cookies never minding the flour spilled all over the floor. She was passing on her skills to another generation. My daughter tells me that she would ask her grandmother questions about me and what I was like as a kid.
But today, I longed for something more. So this afternoon I made my mother's Chicken and Potato Chip casserole. Normally, I would cut down the amount of sour cream used and go easy on the chips, but this time I wanted to make it just as my mother had.
When my husband and I sat down to eat, the casserole was almost as I remembered it. I nearly got it right. The aromas and tastes were transporting and the stories flowed. It was as if my mother were there with us.