|One of MD's "go-to" cookbooks|
Image courtesy of Misprinted Pages
Until I was twelve or so, my parents employed a revolving door of domestics whose primary responsibility was to prepare and serve our family's meals. MD would supervise them, plan the menus, and do much of the shopping, but she gladly surrendered to them what she considered to be the drudgery of their occupation.
Photograph courtesy of TV Guide
I remember the excitement and anticipation I felt when a new cook would join our household, as the prospect of learning her specialties was appealing: Who knew what tasty dishes we would come to enjoy? Would there be cakes and cookies, too?
|"Nothin' says lovin' like somethin' in the oven . . ."|
Photograph courtesy of LIFE Images
When the cook was from England, as we once had, we dined on a steady diet of roasts, puddings, and pies. When she was from South America, such as the nefarious Marta (the subject of a previous series of mine), we encountered strange vegetables and indeterminate meat dishes (that is, until my father put his foot down, demanding that he be served "real food"). And if she was African-American (as several of them were), we happily tucked into fried chicken, corn bread, and other Southern staples. MD generally gave the women who cooked for us a fairly free rein, so long as the meals they prepared and served were balanced across the primary food groups.
|The cover of the 1964 edition of Joy of Cooking,|
MD's default cookbook
But there were times when we didn't have someone cooking for us, and my mother would resignedly pick up such responsibilities. That invariably meant our meals would take a turn for the worse. If it didn't come in a can or jar or carton or box or frozen package, it was unlikely to make an appearance on our dining room table when MD manned the stove in the 1960s. She did pride herself in buying only best-quality meats, which she invariably broiled, but fish was a rarely served. We would sometimes get fresh vegetables instead of frozen ones.
|Is there any other kind?|
Image courtesy of Sunburst Kisses Rowena
MD's idea of a salad started and ended with iceberg lettuce tossed with Good Seasons carafe-made dressing. She was not a baker. I don't remember her ever making a cake when I was growing up, although I do have a dim memory of baking Christmas sugar cookies with her and my sisters. Once.
|This is not a childhood memory that resonates with me|
Image courtesy of Pintarest
The only baking I recall that MD did with any regularity was of potatoes or squash, and chicken. She loved butter and half & half, and she used them both liberally.
|MD's well-used copy of Joy of Cooking|
owned by my dear sister Camilla
Photograph courtesy of same
When it came to seasonings, a dash of ginger powder or nutmeg was about as adventuresome as MD would get. Thoroughly rinsed spaghetti with pressure-cooker made tomato sauce and Kraft Parmesan Cheese was considered ethnic in the Darling household, and was—not surprisingly—served infrequently (and only when my father was out for the evening, as he considered it nursery food).
|This was not MD's idea of "fun"|
Photograph courtesy of the Daily Green
But that all started to change in the late 1960s. Two things happened. First, my mother took over, once and for all, the cooking in our house. By then it was just me and my sister Hermione left at home (Camilla had by then graduated from college, and Frecky was away at boarding school), and we no longer needed the level of domestic support our once-larger family had required. Second, the food revolution had begun in this country, and people were realizing that there was more to be had than the packaged and processed food that filled supermarkets' shelves.
|The interior of a Giant supermarket in Rockville, Maryland, in the 1960s.|
MD shopped in a similar Giant on Wisconsin Avenue
in the Cleveland Park neighborhood of Washington, D.C.
Photograph courtesy of LIFE Images
|MD owned a copy of this cookbook.|
I think she may have used it . . . once or twice
Photograph courtesy of Etsy
But MD never became an accomplished or inventive cook, as she might have under different circumstances, because shortly thereafter my parents' marriage sputtered to an exhausted end, as did what had once been family dinners. Within a year or two I left for Saint Grottlesex, and that was pretty much the end of my sharing home-cooked meals with MD, at least with any regularity. Shortly after I graduated from college MD moved into a life-care retirement center, where she—much to her relief—gave up cooking, once and for all.
|Proust may have had his Madeleines,|
but nothing evokes memories of
Reggie's childhood like frozen peas . . .
Image courtesy of Vintage American Advertisements
Even though MD was, in retrospect, an indifferent cook at best, when I was a little boy I enjoyed the meals she prepared for my family. I loved the frozen peas, canned corned beef hash, and Betty Crocker® Au Gratin potatoes that were in her regular rotation.
|A Darling household favorite!|
Image courtesy of General Mills
It was only after I left home for boarding school and then college that I came to appreciate that one's cooking (and eating) horizons could stretch far beyond the extremely basic meals that MD had fed us. MD was very much the product of her class and times, and I bear her no ill will for her limited cooking skills. I certainly appreciate that getting meals on the table for one's family, day in and day out, isn't necessarily everyone's idea of creative heaven.
But I have to say, Dear Reader, that I am most grateful we have upped our food game in the intervening years here in America. I attribute that to the back-to-the-earth/locavore food movement explosion, the incredible advances made in food distribution, and the broad acceptance and availability today of food, spices, and cooking practices brought to these shores from distant lands and cultures that were but the subject of stories in National Geographic to most Americans when I was a child.
And I think this would have suited MD just fine.
Tell me, was (or is) your mother a good cook? Do you cook differently from the way she did when you were growing up?