Diner: Savoring Memories

Thanks, Mom, it was good

For many of us, Mother's Day recalls childhood memories of surprising Mom with breakfast in bed — although the real surprise came a bit later after she strolled downstairs and discovered the pancake batter sticking like wallpaper glue to every surface in the kitchen. Or perhaps you remember taking Mom and Grandmother out for brunch or dinner, with the requisite hissing from Dad: "Would it kill ya to wear something decent for chrissakes? Take that thing off and put something on that covers your ass! Are you trying to give your Mother a heart attack on Mother's Day?

But, for most of us, Mother's Day also brings memories of Mom's cooking, for better or worse. I suspect every adult considers with sentiment one or more foods from childhood — a fabulous pie, a savory stew or something as prosaic as potatoes that makes you drool every time you think of it, even after all these years.

When it comes to Mom's cooking, just about everyone has a special memory right on the tip of our tongue. Here, a few of CityBeat's food writers explore some of their memories of meals with Mom.

Mother of invention
Even during my terrible teen years, when I was convinced my parents were involved in some demented plot to make my life a living hell, I knew meals at our family table were something not to be missed.

With five boys and three girls to feed, it was easy to miss a meal just by being late. Breakfast, lunch and dinner were served communal style — heaping bowls and platters of food set in the center of the table — and if you weren't there in time to grab a pork chop or a plate of spaghetti, there was a brother with a bottomless pit ready to eat it for you.

My mother wasn't the greatest cook — we used to whisper that the best thing she made was reservations — but I admired her willing spirit, creativity and the notion that she thought herself a great cook because she loved it enough.

My father's mother ruled the culinary roost, which was considerable performance pressure for anyone else. My mother compensated by serving every casserole or odd creation as if she'd just invented the meal of the century and was serving it to invited dinner guests instead of a herd of rowdy children.

She was devoted to her Betty Crocker three-ring recipe book, the one in red gingham plaid with lots of hints and tips on becoming a hostess to be envied in The Good Life. With a six-ounce glass bottle of Coca-Cola (the only size she'd drink because anything else was a "weak imitation") and a Hershey's Milk Chocolate Bar for inspiration, she would sit with her legs up at the kitchen table and choose a recipe that would stimulate the creative drive long enough to relieve her from the "constant exhaustion" she claimed to suffer because we were unruly children determined to drive her to "an early grave."

By the time we bounded in from after-school activities and saw the empty Coke bottles and litter of chocolate wrappers, we knew there would be something "different" for dinner. It was hit or miss whether we'd eat it without complaining, but none of us risked the chance of at least checking out the result of my mother's afternoon sugar buzz.

"International Rice Pilaf, Deviled Eggs, Green Beans and City Chicken," Mother would announce, with the emphasis on "international" to remind her young brood that she could keep up with the best and that deviled eggs served next to pork-on-a-stick (cleverly disguised in 1967 as "city chicken") was practically common everywhere outside of Ohio. Although she came to master pies, dessert was more often given the same inventive treatment, such as frozen Milky Way Bars on toothpicks.

I preferred my grandmother's old-world style of cooking and was strongly influenced by her as I embraced the intimacy of my own kitchen. But for every "Hawaiian Ham and Eggs" breakfast (an all-fried extravaganza of pineapple, bananas, ham and eggs), I discovered common ground with Mother's courage and creativity.

My mother is confined to a wheelchair most of the time with Post-Polio Syndrome, but when her legs allow her a bit of opportunity she goes directly for Betty Crocker, who has encouraged her for more than 40 years. (DC)

Meat my mom
In a time well before fast food, microwaves and pre-cooked grocery items, my mother still managed to feed three growing boys out of her freezer. And I'm not talking pot pies and Swanson TV dinners — I'm talking meat.

Once or twice a year my parents would buy half a steer wrapped in butcher paper and store it away in the chest freezer in our basement. Besides the beef, the butcher would throw in 10 or 20 pounds of pork chops — succulent blade cuts and butts — and a dozen chickens. I still remember my excitement when Dad came home in the station wagon filled with boxes of meat. Not yet frozen, the aroma was strong and, in my opinion, heaven sent.

I can safely say this began my love affair with meat. Every night Mom would send one of us down to get something out of the freezer — usually hamburger (fatty ground chuck, yum) or a round steak or maybe the coveted T-Bones (we didn't bother with filets and strips in the Midwest then). It occurs to me now that this is how I learned my cuts of meat.

She'd leave the frozen item out all night — something I don't suggest — and refrigerate it in the morning. That evening she'd make Swiss steak, spaghetti sauce or her version of goulash. Sometimes she'd oven fry the pork chops or chicken. Meatloaf, Salisbury steak, hash with burger, onions and potatoes (minced by hand and slow-cooked) — I remember them all.

We always had hamburgers on Saturday nights, and occasionally Mom would put a chicken in the crock pot to cook all day. The food was always plentiful and satisfying, made with love and heart. I still make many of these dishes to this day.

None of this would seem that amazing except for one thing — my mother was a career woman who taught for more than 20 years. The thought and effort was daunting, I'm sure, but the results were delicious. Thanks, Mom. (BILL PEEBLES)

To dine for
Hamburger gravy on mashed potatoes. My mother is the only person I've ever known who made this dish, and she made it pretty often.

It's not too tough to figure out the recipe. Brown a pound of hamburger in a skillet with a chopped onion and a liberal amount of salt and pepper, and when the hamburger has browned add a cup of water to the pan. Bring it to a slow boil and thicken with a little flour stirred into cold water. Serve over mashed potatoes.

If you're out of potatoes, serve it over toast or Minute Rice with a side of canned creamed corn. Serve it when you have four kids waiting at the table who haven't done their homework, there's a load of sheets in the washer and a basket stacked with ironing, you have no money to get your hair done and your husband hasn't called to tell you he'll be late again. Serve when the birdcage needs cleaning and you wonder why you ever got yourself into this situation. Serve while smiling.

Forty years later, your oldest daughter will understand. She'll be a food critic who eats scallops and sea bass, but she will remember hamburger gravy on mashed potatoes. It was good, Mom. (ANNE MITCHELL) ©

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