Sunday Dinner

Sunday Dinner: Lessons from my mother

CorrespondentMay 31, 2014 

In last month’s Food section, readers shared the “kitchen wisdom” they learned from their mothers in honor of Mother’s Day.

The stories recalled were very heartwarming and the advice useful. Readers told of feeling their mothers’ presence in their kitchens, doing such helpful things as revealing secret ingredients and advocating cleanliness.

As a food writer, people assume that I had similar soft-focus kitchen experiences with my mother and that, to this day, I draw deep inspiration from her sainted wisdom.

Well ... no. At least not directly.

I believe I did learn things about food and cooking from my mother, but most of it was in reverse.

Here’s what I mean, with translations.

What she said: “Oh, honey, I’m sorry. I must have forgotten to mention that.”

What I learned: Always check any recipe someone gives you, no matter how much you believe that person likes you or how reliable you think it is.

When I began cooking for myself, I asked my mother for her cornbread recipe, which I had always loved. After three or four batches suitable only for floor tile, and phone calls in which she said, “I can’t imagine what you’re doing wrong,” I was miserable.

On a visit home, I had her make the cornbread while I watched. She had neglected to say that she used self-rising cornmeal. She assumed everyone did. I’d been using regular cornmeal and didn’t know enough then to realize the recipe was missing any leavening.

What she said: “I’m not going to fry fish in here because I’ll never get the smell out of the house.”

What I learned: Something so aromatic, crispy and forbidden must be good, and I have since found that to be true of many things.

I never followed her logic about not frying fish. My mother liked fish, and on the rare occasions that we went out to dinner, she would usually order it fried. She fried chicken at home with abandon, and that was at least as messy a process.

The house didn’t have air-conditioning – the windows stayed open from June through September. And frying flounder couldn’t have smelled worse than her ever-present Salem cigarettes.

What she said: “Always keep a canned ham in the refrigerator for emergencies.”

What I learned: The only thing worse than a canned ham is an ice-cold canned ham.

What she said: (While driving on vacation.) “Look, there’s a Hardee’s, let’s stop there.”

What I learned: Avoid the tyranny of the familiar, even if it means taking a risk.

On family road trips, my mother would only eat at chain restaurants. She preferred Hardee’s because, at that time, it was North Carolina-owned (my mother, the original eat-local proponent). She really liked Shoney’s, but they were less common on the road. She would accept a McDonald’s if it was past noon and future prospects looked poor.

It didn’t matter how intriguing and non-threatening other dining options appeared – evil might lurk there.

If I questioned her judgment, she would bring up the smoked oyster pizza incident. On a rare occasion that she gave in and we stopped at a non-chain pizza place, the unexpected freedom went to my father’s head. He ordered a smoked oyster pizza, a choice that proved regrettable for about 24 hours after. But that was a small penalty for avoiding, for once, Huskee Juniors and Big Boys.

I can think of one area where I learned something valuable directly from her.

Late on June afternoons, she would hand me a dented aluminum colander and a knife, and say, “Go out there and pick some lettuce and onions.”

It meant that she was planning wilted salad for dinner.

Wilted salad, also called “killed lettuce” or “kilt lettuce,” is an old Southern tradition. After frying some bacon, which went in the salad with the leaf lettuce and onions, you pour on the hot bacon grease. This wilts, or “kills,” the greens. I think she would add a little apple cider vinegar, too.

In my father’s large vegetable garden, a couple of hours before dinner, I’d clip fresh leaf lettuce, then pull several spring onions from the sticky red clay.

I learned how good freshly picked, right-from-the-garden vegetables are, especially if they’re coated in pork products.

And I think that needs no translation.

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