Recently, when my oldest son and his wife came for a visit, I jokingly inquired which of his favorite dishes he would like me to prepare. Not noting the irony in my tone, he said, doubtfully, “favorite?”, causing me, and Max, to roar with laughter. Cooking is not one of my talents. “Adequate” and “average” are terms that come to mind in describing my meals, although “dreadful” and “awful” often fit, too.
According to my Grandfather Parsons, my Grandmother Hazel [Dee Dee] was a wonderful cook. Her bean soup was great, but I have no other memories of a wonderful meal at her home—and I spent a lot of time with her as a child. My grandfather was a positive and optimistic person; since my memories clash with his statements, I wonder how many of his statements were just PR. Dee Dee’s two daughters were not cooks, either. My mother was a dreadful cook. She prepared pancakes that were burned on the outside and runny on the inside; I have never figured out how she did that. She was also famous for making “cottage cheese” from spoiled milk; of course, no one in the family would eat it. Somehow, we always had a lot of spoiled milk. She could fry steak into hockey pucks. Her worst concoction was something made with asparagus and cheese? and covered with cracker crumbs. It looked like vomit and tasted worse; she served it in the dining room on Sunday meal occasions. But, she was brave. She persisted in providing dreadful meals and inviting friends over to eat, year after year. Once their children were grown, she and my father “ate out” the last thirty years of their lives, to everyone’s relief.
My grandmother and I cooked together when I was a child, mostly treats—cookies, pies, and cakes. I do not have any memories of our fixing vegetables or meat dishes together. When I married at 18 and went off to study at Purdue, I had to learn to cook. We were poor and I ruined a lot of food, which we ate anyway. I only had one small cookbook and I faithfully read and tried the recipes. In my junior year, we both had classes near the Union late in the afternoon and were happy to eat our evening meal there. Unfortunately, my cooking never improved much. It certainly got no better as I had children and juggled college classes with raising babies and small boys. Later, when I started teaching, we had many restaurant meals; I just did not have the energy to cook. The truth is that cooking is something I remember about 5:00 in the evening, if then. Oh…..the-kids-are-hungry-and-what-am-I-going-to-do-now? My mind is on other things. Over the years, I have gathered four shelves of cookbooks, boxes of recipes I clipped from newspapers, as well as boxes of recipes my mother, grandmother, and former mother-in-law clipped from newspapers. Nothing helps. I will never rise above the level of adequate.
Strangely, though, in spite of the mediocre meals, the dining room table has always been a gathering place for my family. Sitting around the table laughing and telling stories was a tradition that encompassed the three generations I know, as well as the ancestral family groups my grandparents remembered. My grandparent’s home was the gathering place for many meals. With my parents, we had many meals over the years in our homes or at restaurants in which we sat and talked on and on. My sons and I have continued the tradition, sitting for hours around the table in my home, telling the old stories and laughing until we cry. This week, as son Jim and wife Shinobu blew in on an Alberta clipper, we once more enjoyed the pleasures of mediocre food and wonderful talk and laughter. One of the aspects of our talks is that we mostly argue about politics and religion—the forbidden topics of polite conversation. Between my husband and me, and my two sons, and my daughter-in-law, we pretty much hit the ends of several spectrums in politics and religion. We argue and discuss—and we laugh. We tell the old stories and the new stories—and laugh until we cannot breathe and tears run down our cheeks. It is often four-five hours later before we leave the table–refreshed and restored from the food of family love—true comfort food.. Family meals—one of life’s most precious treasures.