The Lost Secrets

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Family meals and the food served at them were extremely important to my mother. She was a child of the Great Depression who often proudly noted that she and her siblings never went without a meal. She boasted us that her mother would eat whatever was left after everyone else in the family had a share of the fare on the family menu. She told us of the many times the my grandmother would eat the head of a fish, the neck of a chicken or just suck on the bones of a roast. For my mom, providing food for the family was one of the most important things a good parent might do. 

After my father died Mama had a very small food budget with which to create breakfast, lunch and dinner. She strictly forbade us to eat anything without permission because often the ingredients that we might choose for a snack were intended for one of our meals. She was a wonderfully creative cook who eked every drop out of the food that she purchased. Even bones became the foundation of broth that he used for delicious soups. 

My mom often bragged that she had taken a Home Economics class while she was in high school and that it was probably the most important and useful learning of her lifetime. She credited her teacher with showing her how to create vitamin rich and healthy meals with very little money. She was quite proud of noting that we always had nourishing and tasty meals. 

My friends often commented on the uniqueness of her culinary creations. Best of all they were wonderfully delicious. At bake sales and potluck dinners people would flock to her offerings first because her of her reputation of being a gifted cook. I have to admit that she was masterful in the kitchen without ever having expensive cuts of meat or fish. Somehow she knew exactly what to do to bring out flavors that melded perfectly together. 

The only cookbook that my mother ever used was an old World War II era Good Housekeeping treasure that is unique for its recipes that required very few ingredients that were rationed. There is so little sugar even in the instructions of sweets, that it might almost be designated safe for diabetics. The same is true of eggs. I often felt that the book was a godsend to my mom who was always attempting to find ways of saving money at the grocery store. Nonetheless, she mostly invented recipes of her own, some of which have gone down in the annals of our family lore. 

It was only as Mama grew older and her health began to fail that her cooking lost some of its luster. She’d forget that something was on the stove and it would burn. She would put a bit too much spice or salt and ruin the taste. She’d accidentally leave some important ingredient out. Nonetheless, she was the gravy making queen for thanksgiving and her baked beans were legendary all the way to the end of her life. She holds those titles to this day.

I suppose that I should be a much better cook than I am. Not only was my mother worthy of being a five star chef, but my grandmother Minnie was known far and wide for her cooking. It’s amazing to me that neither lady depended on printed recipes for their dishes. Collectively if they had published a book with the best of their recipes it would have been a sensational success. They actually complemented each other with the favorites from their repertoire.

My grandmother made fluffy biscuits, incredible pies, the best strawberry shortcake ever, melt in your mouth fried chicken, yummy fish, and a variety of vegetables to die for. My mother was a cake and cookie baker extraordinaire. She made delicious soups out of anything that she had. Her meat dishes were always unique and tasty. She created wonderful sauces and gravies and knew how to open a can of something and transform it into a gourmet meal. Sadly neither of them left recipes for posterity. In my grandmother’s case it was because she was illiterate. As for my mother, I suppose that she was so busy creating that she never had time to write things down. 

I tend to repeat the same recipes again and again. I don’t have the same natural feel for cooking and in truth I don’t enjoy it as much as those who came before me. I just want to quickly dash something together and eat mostly to stay alive. The cooking gene appears to have skipped over me somehow but of late, my grandson has shown the same kind of interest in preparing fine meals that his great great grandmother and great grandmother had. In fact, his favorite gifts are cooking tools and certificates to take cooking classes. Perhaps the kitchen genius is still alive and well in him.

If I have one regret it is that I never wrote down the recipes of the best dishes from either my mother or grandmother. It would have been an easy thing to do. We all wish that we knew how to make her famous fudge. I’d give anything to be able to reproduce my grandmother’s biscuits. It’s sad how we don’t seem to think of those things until it is too late. 

My husband’s Aunt Elsie made a flaky Christmas pastry that she called whiskey cakes. None of the recipes we have found are anything like what she made. Nowhere in all of her things did anyone ever find her recipe. The deliciousness of those wonderful delights is gone forever. On cold days we think of her because she had to have a certain cool temperature to create the layers of pastry. It took her hours and hours of rolling paper thin dough and lovingly putting the little cakes together. Sadly she never wrote down exactly how to do it.. 

I have a few recipes that my children and grandchildren enjoy. They’ve already wisely asked me for the recipes. I do a mean seafood gumbo and my arroz con pollo is a winner. I use my mother-in-laws instructions for creating yellow split pea soup and I’m rather well known as the bean queen. Beyond that anything that I cook is easily found in one of my dozens of cookbooks. Still, we’d love to find the secrets of the real chefs who once tantalized our family with their food. Alas the secrets are gone.

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