My mother loves to eat. Cooking may not be her favorite part of the process, but she can if the situation calls for it. Admittedly, she has often asked the family, “How do you like the meal I cooked?” after setting a pizza in front of us that had been ordered from the joint down the road. Sure, she may not have done the actual motions of cooking the pizza, but to her, providing a meal for everyone to enjoy was just as important as whose hands were actually involved in the preparation process. And speaking of pizza, we knew that if mama was in charge of dinner, “healthy” would not be the word we used most often to describe the meal. We were never malnourished or lacking in proper diet, but mama often handled weekend meals to give dad a break.
Understand, in country cooking there is one staple that you must be capable of making: gravy. It can be red eye, buttermilk, or sawmill, but gravy is a skill that cannot be overlooked. My mother learned from her parents how to make gravy, just runny enough, thick, and without lumps. As far as I am concerned, this is one of the culinary techniques she has mastered. In my early years, dad would get up early some weekends and make biscuits. That smell alone was enough to get a sleeping person to sit up straight in the bed, but when that smell hit our nostrils we knew one thing: gravy was not far behind. Mama would fry up some bacon or sausage and as soon as it had left the pan, the juices still sizzling, she’d toss in the flour and get to work whisking it. She would work furiously, calling for things as she needed them, “Condensed milk! Regular Milk! Hurry!” If we didn’t know any better, we may have believed that her life truly depended on that gravy coming out perfectly. The result never disappointed, though.
My parents have always had some shared tastes, but even more they had very different opinions on things. Cheese has always been one of those differing opinions. My mother was of the opinion that almost any cheese is a good cheese, even if the box said something like “pasteurized cheese product.” My dad, on the other hand, wanted anything with cheese on the label to actually be cheese, and not a by-product of the cheese process.
Velveeta, if you don’t know, makes the best grilled cheese sandwiches. Your mama may not have loved you enough to introduce you to the wonders of the quick melting cheese that allows your bread to get toasted just right. And, please, do not put anything else on the grilled cheese. Really, call it something else if you’re considering adding mayonnaise, bacon, apples, or anything else. A real grilled cheese sandwich and a bowl of Campbell’s condensed chicken noodle or tomato soup are a combination I’m sure my mother heard whispered from heaven… or maybe she grew up with it. If you have not tried that combination, I encourage you to, and you may just pass it along to your own children.
Having grown up in a poor environment, there were some ingredients that were passed down to me that people of other classes may not know about. (If you do know about them, lucky you!) First, is the classic: bologna. I cannot tell you how often my family stated, “A loaf of white bread and a pack of bologna’s all you need for a family meal.” I’m paraphrasing a bit there, but not by much. We did not just eat bologna on sandwiches, either, I still get excited by the thought of fried bologna and scrambled eggs. Every once in a while, Hardee’s will advertise for their bologna biscuit, and it’s all I can do to fight temptation and get to work on time. (Sometimes I lose that battle, but as I bite into the fluffy biscuit and crispy bologna exterior, I realize that I really didn’t lose at all.) Canned tuna fish also came down to me through my mother. With a spoonful of Miracle Whip (yes, Miracle Whip, don’t judge) and some sweet pickle relish, the humble canned tuna becomes a delicious tuna salad, bursting with creamy sweetness. Yes, I have had the boring mayonnaise and dill relish kind, and, honestly, I don’t know why people continue doing that to themselves. And, barring the Miracle Whip and sweet relish, opening a can, putting it on a piece of bread and topping that with some Swiss cheese will also, “make you smack your granny.” (I have asked about the origin of this phrase, but I cannot for the life of me remember where it originated.) Oh, I forgot to mention that the aforementioned sandwich needs to be toasted or microwaved in order to get the full effect. (Just be ready for the pungent aroma that will waft from your cooking device and fill the entire household with eau du tuna.)
My mother and I shared some vegetables, as well. I am sure some of you were wondering whether or not we even ate vegetables. We both enjoyed lima beans and green peas. In fact, I was shocked to learn that some people ate their fried chicken and mashed potatoes with anything but green peas (tucked neatly into the indentation of the mashed potatoes, of course.) I don’t think my dad enjoyed either of those very much, since he often excused himself from both of those, but he still made them because it made mama happy. (And if mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.)
Adventure was usually the name of the game on vacation. My family’s vacation planning usually includes, before much of anything else, an itinerary of where we will be eating over the course of the trip. You might think that is silly, we consider it a necessity. Growing up, my family owned some opticals down in southern Texas, which meant we ended up down there for “working vacations.” The business part always bored me, but the food was terrific. Between Garcia’s down in Progresso, Mexico and the Sea Ranch in South Padre Island, we ate like kings and queens while we were there. I had my first taste of Oysters Rockefeller (oysters baked with spinach, cheese, and bacon) as well as escargot. My mama has always had a bit of a mischievous streak that caused her to challenge her boys, and occasionally jump out from behind dark doorways and scare us half to death. When an opportunity presented itself to challenge us food-wise, she took it, especially the younger we were. So there I was, in a lovely restaurant on the beach looking forward to some shrimp, as my family does enjoy some tasty shrimp, when my mother noticed that the restaurant had escargot on the menu. If you are unaware of what escargot is, escargot is a dish prepared with edible snails baked in special trays with garlic butter and topped with a sharp cheese. The taste is cheese and garlic butter, and the snail flavor is rather faint, but it does add an interesting, chewy texture to the mix. She placed an order for the appetizer, and we all got some. Mama, of course, had been ribbing us about whether we’d be man enough to try it, and of course we did. I actually liked it, which may or may not have surprised her, but to this day I will seek out an opportunity to get some snails in my mouth. (Granted, I prefer them dead first and cooked in garlic butter, but that should go without saying.)