Many kids have glowing memories of the wonderful meals and dishes their mothers made for them growing up. Katie Boyts, creator of the The Shoefly Project blog helped me understand why I have wonderful memories of the desserts mom used to make, but not so much the meals.
Don’t be fooled though by this introduction: my mom was a fine cook who put three separate meals on the table every day of the week for a family of six and for that alone she deserves a medal of “she got ‘er done!” But she did not love cooking—she did it because that was her job, among others, and we needed to eat. She went into a mild panic when Dad would bring in a couple of hired hands at the last minute for dinner, or if Dad or us kids talked her into having company over for Sunday dinner. She was always inclined to worry about whether she would prepare enough, or would people like it, and how will I ever get all my other work done?
But a normal dinner (main meal of the day at noon on the farm) in the 50s and 60s in rural Indiana was just meat (usually home-grown beef or pork served baked/roasted, fried); potatoes (mashed, plain boiled, baked, or fried) or perhaps noodles or macaroni; and a vegetable, boiled. Period. If we had salad, it was iceberg lettuce with homemade salad dressing. In the summer we joyfully added fresh tomatoes, radishes and garden lettuce to our meals. But no spinach, kale, or other yummy greens. No broccoli, cauliflower, squash or other “exotic” vegetables at our house. Usually plain corn, beans, peas. No casseroles other than macaroni and cheese. Later in life we got into lima beans and plain casseroles combining noodles, potatoes and a vegetable with a can of soup on top. We were getting fancy.
For our evening meal in summer we ate one of a variety of fresh fruits with bread and milk or maybe with a cobbler or shortcake: strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, peaches. We ate local most of the time and didn’t even know that was something to be proud of.
However, (and I’m told by my peers this was common for many a Mennonite mom,) desserts were special. As Katie Boyts pointed out at a Mennonite writers conference recently, if you look at cookbooks or recipe boxes from the era you will see separate chapters of recipes for 1) cakes, 2) pies, 3) cookies/brownies, and then one just called “desserts” (as if all those other chapters weren’t really desserts). Even a relatively well-rounded book like the now classic Mennonite Country-Style Recipes (Herald Press, 1987) dedicates roughly 200 of its 500 pages to dessert type items (all categories). That is where the date puddings and hot chocolate pudding and something we called George Washington Pudding (or “cherry delight”) and much more were found. This is where the fancy came out. I recall learning how to whip real cream for mom to plop at the last minute onto the already decadently rich date pudding when company came, so it would be poufy and fresh. Or helping her dish up hot chocolate pudding for a church committee meeting at the house– a warm Bisquick-y base with melted chocolate syrup oozing over everything like what you would find at Applebees with ice cream on top. I have never made date or hot chocolate pudding for my family. They would think both are too rich.
But when your meal was rather plain and you did hard physical work on the farm, you could indulge in dessert. Every week she would make either a cake or homemade pies for the basic dessert for the week and then if we ran out, we’d have home canned peaches, pears, apricots or cherries for dessert with a cookie or two. Those desserts bring back fond memories too because I have never gotten around to canning fruits. If Mom goes to a potluck, even at age 87, she doesn’t feel right just bringing a store bought pie or deli potato salad (or heaven forbid a bag of chips): she has to make her usual pecan pie.
It is interesting how food customs and favorites change even within the same culture—let alone add in the delightful multi-cultural mix of food that we enjoy in North America these days.
I’m grateful for all I learned from my mother in the kitchen even though she always felt she failed in teaching us four children to cook very much. These days, even my brother and one sister who was always out helping Dad on the farm, manage to get a meal on the table and enjoy it too.
No use to harken back to “good old days”—just enjoy and appreciate the foods you are blessed to have access to in 2012 and the plethora of recipes and cooking shows and websites to show you endless ways to prepare them.