I learned to cook early in life as a latch key kid in the 1960s. My parents both worked long hours: my dad in a parts department in San Francisco, Mom as a dental assistant in Hayward. This was before after-school childcare programs. In elementary school, I’d collect my younger brother and we’d walk home through a fenced easement that took us to our neighborhood. I don’t remember having a key to the house, or looking under the doormat for one, so Mom probably left the front door unlocked.
As a teenager in the 7th grade, I made soup and toast for my brother and me, just before Mom got home from work. She appreciated that we were fed, but a little concerned that I had turned on the electric burners without her supervision. She didn’t tell me not to cook, so whenever I got the chance to cook soup, boil hot dogs or make egg salad sandwiches, I did so with gusto.
Mom’s kitchen was so narrow that I could stretch out my arms and simultaneously touch the oven on the left and the refrigerator on the right. I did that one time only. The wiring wasn’t grounded properly so if you touched both at once, you got a pretty good shock. If I remember correctly, there were two colors for kitchen appliances then: avocado and yellow. Our eggbeater, for example, was yellow. I use the same eggbeater in my kitchen today as Mom used in the ’60s. I don’t mean a replica. I mean the exact same one.
Although I learned to cook with a passion, Mom didn’t enjoy cooking at all. I think this was because Mom worked long hours, six days a week. Except for dinners on Sunday night, Mom fixed anything that could be baked, quickly fried, or reheated. Swanson’s TV Dinners were a staple in our house as was Spam, and various other mystery meats such as bologna.
On the first Sunday of every month, assuming the mortgage payment was in the mail, Mom would go shopping for everything needed to put pot roast on the table at dinnertime. Pot roast was my favorite thing in the world. I looked forward to it even more than playing sandlot baseball with my friends everyday after school. Mom’s roast was always a little crispy on the outside. She said the crispiness made it taste better. Over time, I learned this meant I burned it but let’s not tell anyone.
I remember that Mom burned most anything she cooked. More than once we would sit down to Sunday dinner and just as I finished loading my plate with food, I’d smell something burning in the kitchen. “I forgot the dinner rolls,” she would say. “Who wants to get up and rescue them for me?” Because I sat closest to the kitchen, I was generally elected to check on the rolls, toast or whatever was turning to charcoal at the time.
I remember Mom’s killer smile. She was always smiling and always saw the glass as half full, even in the worst of times. I think this outlook on life was a result of living through the Great Depression as a teenager. When things got really bad in the mid ’30s, Gran and Gramps put Mom and her sister in their car, tied luggage to its roof, and left their home in Mitchell, South Dakota to make a new life with relatives in California’s Central Valley.
I don’t remember Mom ever uttering a harsh word, except for one time. I’m told by my older sister, Donna, that I was always seeking attention. One Saturday morning I must have gone too far. I must have pushed one of Mom’s buttons once too many times, because she chased me out of the kitchen and up the stairs, trying to swat me with a wooden spoon. As I reached the stairs and put my hand on the railing, Mom’s spoon caught up with me. I remember hearing the spoon make a “smacking” sound, but don’t remember feeling it connect with my rear end. What I remember is the spoon breaking in half and, as it connected, Mom saying, “Shit.”
I turned to look at Mom. I wanted to say I was sorry but burst out laughing instead. Mom was laughing and, by the time I realized what was going on, had tears in her eyes from laughing so hard. I came to the bottom of the stairs and she hugged me saying, “Don’t ever do that again.” I can’t recall what “that” was, but I’m sure I never did it again.
Mom passed away at the young age of 65. Although she has been gone for almost three decades now, she is often in my thoughts and forever in my heart.
Happy Mother’s Day, Mom. I will always love you!
Mom’s Carrot Casserole
Although Mom wasn’t a good cook, I do remember one dish that I asked for on occasion. This was a carrot casserole she remembered her mom making for her when times were hard, and all they had to eat were root vegetables stored in the cellar. It is a recipe that was handed down to my mom from her mom, and from her mom’s mom before that. It is at least 110 years old.
I never saw the recipe in writing, but I remember the ingredients Mom used. One Mother’s Day, when I craved her carrot casserole, I experimented until I got the right mix of ingredients. I hope you enjoy this simple dish as much as my family and I have enjoyed it over the years.
1 small yellow onion (chopped fine)
½ cup butter
3 pounds carrots
¼ cup flour
4 ounces Ritz crackers (crumbled)
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon pepper
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Sauté onion in butter until barely translucent. Take off heat and set aside. Scrub carrots. Do not peel. Cut carrots in 3 inch lengths. Steam until tender. Mash steamed carrots and add to onions. Cook over medium heat for 5 minutes. Transfer onion and carrot mixture to a large mixing bowl. Add flour, egg, cracker crumbs, salt and pepper. Mix well. Transfer mixture to a casserole dish or a loaf pan. Bake for approximately 1 hour.
Mom served this dish with plain white rice and a fresh garden salad.
See Chef Randy’s food blog for more recipes at http://valleyvegetarian.blogspot.com