Generations at the stove

I bump into my mom a lot in the kitchen. Not literally; she lives in Texas. But every time I pull out one of her old recipes, with her handwritten scroll still visible through decades of food stains on crinkled paper, I feel her standing right beside me. Recently, when talking my younger son through the steps to make a vegetable soup, I could almost hear her voice in harmony with my own.

Mom was my first cooking teacher, and more of this era than her own with respect to fresh ingredients, whole foods, and from-scratch dishes. She cooked for six kids and our dad during the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s — the heydays of processed, refined, overly packaged food. Full disclosure: it’s not like I never had a birthday cake from a Betty Crocker mix or never saw Campbell’s canned soup in the pantry growing up. I even have fond memories of Howard Johnson brand chicken croquettes in cream sauce; it was the easy frozen entree of choice if our parents were going out for the evening.

But those instances were the clear exception to Mom’s norm. My memories (and, thankfully, several pages in one of my recipe binders) are filled with her honest-to-goodness food. Nothing fancy, just timeless family favorites: minestrone made with homemade chicken stock and packed with fresh vegetables; whole-grain banana-walnut bread;  sweet potato, apple and pecan casserole at Thanksgiving – no synthetic marshmallows on top for my mom! For some dishes, she followed a recipe. Other times, she just made things as she knew them by heart, mostly the ones her mom had taught her to make. Now Grandma, she was an amazing cook. A grocer along with Grandpa back in the 1920s and 1930s, their customers routinely lined up, notebooks and pens in hand, while she recited her recipes for everything from Irish stew to lamb roast to chicken noodle soup with home-made noodles.

Mom will turn 91 this month and in a few weeks will finally move to a 24-hour assisted living floor in her community. Despite her age and advancing dementia, she continues to amaze us. She’s in remarkably good health for a nonagenarian. She lived in her own house, and then apartment, over the last four years, albeit in an assisted living community.  She attends seated tai chi classes where she lives.  She’s still charming in conversation, even if she can’t remember what she or you just said three minutes ago. She might struggle to come up with the word “blouse” or “cardigan,” yet she still pulls together those elements of her wardrobe to dress as stylishly as ever. Her whole face breaks into smile and laughter whenever she’s around babies or puppies. And, though she hasn’t cooked in years, she still seems to appreciate a good meal.

One of the by-heart recipes mom grew up with and passed on to us is goetta, a peasant dish well known to Germans who settled in and around the Cincinnati of her youth. I can still picture my mom and Grandma, along with Mom’s aunt, grinding their own beef and pork to make this dish. Equal parts of those meats, flavored simply with onion, bay leaf and allspice, cook slowly on the stove with steel cut oatmeal. Afterward the mixture is placed in a loaf pan, where it firms up as it cools. You then slice and pan fry it; the outside turns golden brown and crispy like good hash-browns but the inside is creamy, like perfectly cooked porridge.  Serve up these slices –“piping hot” mom would insist — with homemade chunky applesauce. Mmmmm. One of the world’s best comfort foods, a hug from all the women on Mom’s side of the family tree.

Goetta is what Mom had ready when we’d come in from the snow, when we arrived home from camp or college, on Father’s Day weekend, when her Uncle Bill visited from Cincinnati, or just when we had a ‘hankering,’ as she’d say. Thanks, Mom. And Happy Mother’s Day.  (Find this family recipe on my Recipes page.)

Mom as a little girl, with her parents and their employee (right), in the family grocery.


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