this essay was first published in :
Killing the Angel, Issue 3 – 2014
Catch of the Day
My mother embraced ham, bacon, shrimp, and lobster, especially lobster—all of the formerly forbidden fruits of the porcine and shellfish families—when she threw in her lot with a gentile husband. She left behind the religious and cultural traditions of her youth in her Orthodox mother’s kosher kitchen.
She fed us wholesome meals with dutiful constancy during the lean years when my brother and I were growing up. The menu was heavy on cheap cuts of meat, casseroles, and leftovers. Yesterday’s roast chicken became today’s “Jewish penicillin,” a hearty soup with carrots and noodles; ham remnants went into a gratin-like dish with creamy potatoes and cheese. She was creative with ground beef before the era of pre-packaged “helpers.” She cooked pork to death, perhaps carrying a residual fear of retribution by trichinosis. She loved to gnaw around chop bones, so I would extract the lean dry nuggets from the center of mine and pass the bones to her.
Every mom made tuna casserole, and every kid thought her mother’s the best, though they were all pretty much the same. My mother put crushed corn flakes on top instead of potato chips, a slightly sweet contrast to the savory filling. She made salmon loaf from canned pink salmon, skin and bones included, and “meat pie”—ground beef, canned green beans and Campbell’s tomato soup with mashed potato topping—that I later discovered was her take on English cottage pie. I incorporated these dishes into my repertoire when I took command of my own kitchen, replacing canned soups with well-seasoned wine-laced sauces, and they became my daughter’s childhood favorites as well.
Dessert used to be canned fruit, instant pudding or jello, but Mom always baked for our birthdays. I can still taste the rich, dark fudginess of her seven-minute chocolate frosting and feel its sugary-grittiness on my tongue. She would stir it into smooth submission with a wooden spoon and slather it on top of my Betty Crocker devil’s-food cake.
If anyone had asked me if my mom was a good cook, I’d have said, “Yeah, sure,” as if it was built into her DNA. That’s what moms do.
But every couple of months—always on a Sunday—my father would take over in the kitchen to great fanfare. This was long before cooking became cool for men, before celebrity chefs and “Just Call Me Bobby Flay” aprons. “Daddy’s cooking today!” we would say, equating the event to a picnic at the beach or a trip to the zoo. My mother led the cheers, grateful for a break from the daily tedium.
He made pizza, starting the dough to rise early in the day, tossing it in the air to shape and form a thin New York-style crust. “Just like at Pernicano’s!” (our favorite pizzeria and a rare treat ) my brother and I would shriek as he sent the disc high, spinning it with a theatrical flip of the wrist. He concocted a seafood stew after fishing trips, his version of cioppino, using the catch of the day. Corbina and perch swam in close to the shore, and on a good day he could hook them with a long cast at low tide and sand crabs for bait. He plucked mussels off the rocks in months with an “R” when they were deemed safe to eat.
We never had a barbecue, depriving him of that macho stronghold, outdoor grilling. Instead, the waffle iron became his province. Waffles were a summer Sunday supper, with slices of cantaloupe and a scoop of vanilla ice cream on top, maple syrup poured over it.
I grew up with the impression that Mom was an okay everyday cook, but turn Dad loose at the stove—zowee! I took her efforts for granted and put the hero’s mantle on him.
Of course it’s never just about the food. The meals of childhood are microcosms of family dynamics, on display and acted out at the table. Eating behaviors, rules and rituals, the food itself are the raw materials that mold us. We may look back on them fondly or with resentment, as something to replicate and hand down or to banish forever.
My father was my hero; he could do no wrong. I drew up battle lines that pitted him and me against my mother and brother. He and I were more cultured—opera lovers and readers of classics—while they preferred pop and pulp. Our culinary tastes were far more sophisticated. More adventurous, discriminating. We gardened together to provide crisp fresh greens and warm-from-the-sun tomatoes for our salads; they were happy with canned and frozen vegetables.
It wasn’t until I had a family of my own that the blinders came off and I began to see a more balanced picture. My mother and I were never close, but we developed a comfortable camaraderie as adults. She didn’t tell tales about my father’s drinking and dalliances over the years—things I’d seen but chosen to ignore as a child—but I came to understand and appreciate the trials she’d endured while I acknowledged his weaknesses and limitations. The pendulum swung to the other extreme after my mother’s death when she was only 60. I was 33 and a divorced single mother. My father quickly—too quickly—remarried and became a remote presence in my life. I felt orphaned. In retribution for both myself and my mother, I garbed him in villain’s mantle and aimed poison-tipped barbs of scorn and contempt at an imagined effigy.
He outlived my mother by 30 years, and over time I let go of my anger. I came to see and know him as the benign, caring, and all-too-human being he was. I forgave him his shortcomings as I absolved myself for my rash judgments. And when I released him from the scoundrel’s role, I could reclaim the memory of those Sundays in the kitchen.