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Thursday, September 9, 2021

Moms' Cooking

Moms’ Cooking

Happy Valentine’s Day

Moms and Ladies Everywhere!


This is a celebration of “all” mom’s cooking. Mine, for sure, but so many more. Friends and family, as well as loyal readers, know that I do all the cooking in my house. And my wife is very appreciative of this fact. We eat very well, I make meals that run the gamut of fun, interesting, creative, exotic, delicious, questionable, overkill, underwhelming, gourmet and run-of-the-mill. I shop daily, and generally base my evening meal around some combination of what’s fresh, what looks good, what my wife requests (and she’s very undemanding in that regard), and of course what I feel like cooking that night. Maybe simple tacos, maybe extremely fancy burritos with wheat tortillas, the best ground sirloin, a special salsa of onions, peppers, tomatoes, garlic and cilantro, fresh sour cream and guacamole, and a fancy squiggle of home-made enchilada sauce over the top. Maybe some burgers on the BBQ, maybe a killer tri-tip that I marinated overnight in my dry rub (which I call Rubbit), started on the Big Chief Smoker, and finished on the BBQ with real mesquite wood as the fuel.


But growing up was very different, and it probably was for most people. Traditionally, our moms did the cooking. Some of them worked a part-time job, some were professionals, but most were relegated to be the cook of the house. Our house was no exception. I’m the oldest of six kids, with five younger sisters spread out over a ten-year period.


I was 10 when the youngest was born, 2 days after Christmas. And as an illustration of how things have changed, consider this. I spent the day with a couple of friends (both of whom I still see today) riding from our house in Daly City … down Skyline Boulevard, into the City, all over Golden Gate Park, over to Larsen Pool for a couple of hours of swimming, and back to Daly City later in the afternoon. I arrived home (which was always unlocked) to a note that explained that my mom and dad had gone to the hospital to have the baby, and to make myself something to eat and they’d call me later. I was 10.


Interesting meal that night, as I recall. There was ham in the fridge, so I sliced off a couple of pieces and heated them up in the oven. I believe I complimented the meal with some leftover scalloped potatoes, and undoubtedly a big chunk of a sheet cake of some sort, which my mom routinely produced every two or three days. We never went hungry, there was always dessert, very rarely anything resembling leftovers, but for a family of eight, we did very well thanks (in retrospect) to my mom’s creative ways in the kitchen.


But let me come back to my mom’s cooking. Most kids love their mom’s cooking, and I was no exception. I grew up in a wonderous melting pot of a community called Daly City, Henry Doelger’s vision of what 1950’s suburbia was supposed to look like, located at the north end of the San Francisco Peninsula. I had a privileged upbringing because I had the opportunity to experience such a wide variety of friends, cultures, and “other moms’ cooking.” We had no notion of prejudice of any sort. People were people. Different backgrounds, races, religions, for sure, but they were all simply people. Neither we or they were better or worse, just different, and it was something to be celebrated.


And for someone who’s always loved new and interesting foods, it was a cornucopia of culinary delights. Spending the night at one friend’s house might mean experiencing some wonderful Jewish food. Another would provide a phenomenal Greek feast. And my friend Mike’s mom was from Kentucky and put on some of the most incredible southern-inspired dinners, and complete breakfasts every day. My mom didn’t do breakfast. And lunches were minimal. Great dinners for sure, but breakfast consisted of a bowl of 40% Bran Flakes if we were lucky. Lunches were PBJ or bologna sandwiches, a Milky Way, and an apple. Always. I was jealous of friends’ lunches. And appreciative of being invited over for dinners, which to me were always new and interesting, and a total treat.


I have a long-time friend who’s a top-notch cardiologist. On our first day of 7th grade when our teacher asked what we all wanted to do when we grew up, he stood up and proclaimed that he was going to be a doctor. His parents escaped Nazi Germany via Shanghai, where his father was trained as a pastry chef. This was always one of my favorite places to visit for dinner. When my friend was accepted to medical school (at Mt. Sinai in New York) his parents threw a little soiree that they prepared themselves, over a two-week period prior to the party. I don’t recall a feast since, that could equal this one. Quite likely the most incredible spread of food that I’ve ever seen. The tables wrapped around two of the four walls of their Millbrae home. Guests were treated to this amazing presentation of food and desserts through huge windows that provided a panoramic view of the San Francisco Airport and Bay. I have another friend who says “if it gets any better, I don’t want to know about it.” This was one of those moments.


My friend Marie’s mom Flora was born in Rome. How could she not be a great cook? Dinner at Flora’s has always been amazing. My mom made spaghetti, and something resembling a rosemary chicken dish on occasion, but Flora was from Rome. Stuffed pasta, white sauces vs. the basic red meat sauces we had at home, incredible use of fresh herbs, wonderful breads, inventive salads with home-made dressings, and some phenomenal traditional Italian desserts were presented like it was just something she did every night. Which she did. Flora’s in her mid-80’s today, still gets around remarkably well in her beloved Mustang, and still cooks a wonderful meal for herself every night.


And so, it was a major treat to be able to finally cook for her a few weeks ago. I suppose I should have been a little nervous about it, kind of like having Julia Child over for your signature beef bourguignon, but amazingly I approached it with pleasure, totally looking forward to cooking a dinner for this wonderful woman. Dinner was simple and flavorful, with plenty of Italian overtones. I started with a nice salad of field greens, scallions, radishes, and mandarin orange wedges, homemade raspberry balsamic vinaigrette. A little amuse bouche of mango sorbet with a sprinkle of lemon zest between courses, the crusted salmon recipe that you’ll find on the website, and a nice risotto with brown Italian mushrooms, arugula, and of course Reggiano Parmigiano. Plenty of wine, a nice Port with dessert, and I had some very happy guests. It was my pleasure to cook for Flora and her daughter Marie, and hopefully I’ll be able to do it again soon.


We all thought my mom’s cooking was wonderful when we were growing up. She had to be extremely resourceful, always frugal, but we were provided a home cooked feast every night. I’ve got to believe that my own cooking habits, meaning “buy it fresh, daily” had to come in some part from my mom’s routine. One thing she did that I don’t do however, is a big trip to the store that she called “weekly shopping.” I shop every day. Weekly shopping would mean the entire back portion of our ’62 Valiant station wagon full of grocery bags from Skyline Plaza Market. Feeding a family of eight for a week requires planning and smart buying, I’m sure.


Mom made a few things very well, others “ok,” and there were some questionable concoctions as well. Sunday meals of leg of lamb, pot roast, a big ham, or even a basic “oven roast” with potatoes and carrots cooked around it would have the six kids waiting at the table long before it was dinner time. Her spaghetti was awesome, meatloaves were incredible, and she made a mean pot of chili. Chicken (like much of what she made) was fried in about three gallons of vegetable oil. We didn’t know better, and thought it was great.


Vegetables were another matter. Corn was pretty good, asparagus and artichokes were passable, but it didn’t dawn on me until I started cooking for myself, that virtually everything in the vegetable category was either boiled or fried. Steaming was a concept she didn’t get. I remember her saying “eat it, I used a whole stick of butter when I fried it.” No wonder we were all fat growing up! I’d be hard pressed to use a stick of butter in a vegetable dish. 


And always the “sheet cakes.” Generally, a white cake mix with an overly-sweet chocolate frosting, spread out on a big baking sheet. They were nothing glamorous, varied very little in their taste or composition of ingredients, but we had dessert every night. A sheet cake would usually last the family of eight, two nights. If it was someone’s birthday, the sheet cake would have candles and maybe “Happy Birthday” on it. Could this be an underlying reason why I don’t bake more? Did my mom permanently affect my “sweets” genes? Hard to say, but it must have contributed to it!


But to mothers everywhere who generally did the lion’s share of the family cooking as we were growing up, I salute your inventiveness, consistency, and your dedication to keeping your families fed with tasty nutritional meals. As someone who does all the cooking for the house (and there’s just two of us, no “family of eight” to cook for), I recognize the challenges that come with creating the evening meal … every night.

And with that, I’ll finish this like I started it … Happy Valentine’s Day!!

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