One of the best things about having a sibling as an adult is that you’ve got someone to compare notes with.
Vicki and I became closer when our mother died in 1993. Our father, Gordy, stuck around for almost twenty more years and became the third musketeer in our misadventures.
But this blog isn’t about the three of us. It is about food. Specifically cooking. And growing up in a danger zone called Lori’s kitchen. Sorry Gordon Ramsay, but your version of Hell’s Kitchen has nothing on us.
Vicki and I recently got to talking about our family’s move from Minnesota when we were kids. Our father had been promoted to the corporate headquarters of a tool company in Maryland. But the way it all came about started in Lori’s kitchen and is likely a first in the history of man’s climb up the corporate ladder.
Back in the day of Mad Men, it was not uncommon for a man to invite his boss home for dinner. So when my dad’s boss and his wife came to our house, no one expected what Lori had cooked up for them. Not even Gordy.
Angry with this boss that her husband, the division’s best salesman, had been passed over for promotion time and time again, Lori decided to get even.
That night, the adults sat down to a dignified business dinner at the dining room table.
Of course, when Lori removed the lid to the casserole dish to reveal a home cooked dinner of pigs feet, she drove her message home by saying, “If my husband had been promoted as he should have been, he’d be making more money, and you’d be eating a better dinner.”
No one ever accused my mother of being subtle.
Within a month, we kids learned we were moving to Maryland. Gordy had been promoted to corporate headquarters. And Lori’s kitchen was just heating up.
In retrospect, my sister and I are certain our mother used her kitchen as an instrument of control and, at times, torture. We never heard our parents argue, but now believe she sent our father strong messages through our family dinners, served up at five-thirty sharp come hell or high water–and hell was the safest bet.
We noted that on any given day, if one of us walked into the house after school and asked what was for dinner–you knew you were in for it if the answer was a curt and loud, “FOOD!”
And at our house, there were no niceties like “sweetie” in our mother’s vocabulary either (see Figure #1.) Our mother’s one-word statement of “FOOD!” meant you were dining on one of the following–or worse:
- Italian Refugee Night: naked spaghetti noodles with a can of watery stewed tomatoes on top and a side of boiled hotdogs.
- Bone Soup: This was always prepared on the last day of the leftover ham. It was essentially the bone picked clean of its ham placed in a watery liquid resembling what is leftover after boiling hotdogs in a pot. Add to it dried navy beans soaked overnight in water, and you’ve got a gruel fit for…well, no one.
- Chili with a side of Cabbage: Whenever the house smelled like a nursing home, dinner was going to be trouble. Especially given that her chili was really just a pot of fried ground beef, kidney beans, and tomato paste with nary a spice making it into the mix, and the side of cabbage plain stunk.
- Large Intestine Mystery Night: A big old sausage in thick casing that resembled the large intestine of prehistoric beast sat center-table in a greasy fry pan. It was usually served with sauerkraut and a can of vegetables. My sister confided that she used to worry she would break a tooth when she bit down on the little shards of bone hiding in the meat.
- Braunschweiger Sandwiches: The Triple-White-Wonder–it was like eating caucasian flesh on Wonder Bread with a layer of mayo.
- Fried Liver and Onions: I know some people love this, but we did not. And now we know organ meat is not healthy–particularly when the organ is toxin-town central.
- Ham Hocks: Also known as hog ankles–or cankles. Nothing delicate about a hearty pot of these babies.Eat up, everybody.
- Creamed Chipped Beef on Toast: There’s a reason the Army serves this–it’s cheap. There’s also a reason the people in the Army who eat it call it Shit on a Shingle. I imagine it will make you march faster, however–double-time to the latrines.
- Fry Them to Hell Eggs, Hamburgers, Chicken or Pork Chops: In summer, often accompanied by corn on the cob boiled beyond recognition. In winter, it was a crap shoot. Literally.
- Fish with Small Bones: Imagine flossing with fish bones as you work your way through dinner–but that was just a precursor to the next, most despised meal–
The coup de grâce of the danger zone called Lori’s kitchen deserves its own story. Fried Canned Salmon Cakes topped with Canned Peas in a Cream Sauce.
Yes, we ate salmon from a can. Before frozen salmon fillet was considered fashionable and cans were considered substandard. And the last time our mother served this delicacy was a night when I had been sick with a stomach bug. I was home for the weekend–I lived in an apartment about fifty miles south where I was a first-year teacher.
I had spent Saturday in my old room resting and running to the bathroom, but was starting to feel better, so I came downstairs at five-thirty, and sat at the table.
Gordy set down a plate with a fried salmon cake in front of me. Then my mother walked up and slopped a ladle of creamed, canned peas on top of the cake.
Suddenly, the smell hit me and I vomited on top of my dinner plate, which fortunately, had a high rim so no extraneous mess was created.
My mother was furious–but my father turned the corner into the family room where I could see him laughing discretely like Muttley the dog from the Penelope Pitstop cartoon.
And that was the last time Lori ever served fried salmon patties with creamed canned peas. An era had come to an end.
Looking back, we know our mother had ample money for groceries, but chose to make these dishes. Some of them were common in households at the time–the way many of us grew up eating canned vegetables, but I had enough friends to know that a lot of kids were getting things like stir-fry with fresh vegetables and chicken cooked on a Weber grill with some sauce or seasoning. (Our mother firmly believed chicken cooked on a grill would kill you fast as undercooked corn or, say, arsenic.)
But Vicki and I grew up happy, healthy, and with an occasional steak dinner or restaurant meal that sustained us. And despite everything, we are, in fact, both decent cooks today.
My sister is also an excellent baker. I have been too scared to bake since the one and only time my mother allowed twelve year-old me to make chocolate chip cookies that came out about the size of hub caps and as raw in the center as a yeast infection.
I never lived it down and was never allowed near her oven again, but in fairness to Lori, I am sure I will get mine, too. When my children are adults and I am long gone, I am sure they will laugh that their mother’s idea of Christmas cookies was holiday Oreos with the red icing in the center.
Well, that, and the time I cooked a green pork roast because my younger self didn’t know that large cut of pork should not have a greenish tint. The house may have stunk for days, but the legend of the time I almost poisoned the whole family goes on forever.
Yours from the intersection of Memory Lane and Milk of Magnesia,
Hot Flash Suzi