In the beginning of my parent’s marriage it was the 50’s and they were poor. Like their neighbors, they happily existed on tuna fish casserole and Campbell’s soup. By the time I came along some twelve years and three older children later, they were certainly better off financially, but the breadth of my mom’s cooking hadn’t changed much.
I remember being sent to the school bus in a hurry, with a breakfast of warm peanut butter toast wrapped in a paper napkin clutched in my hand. There was always a layer of butter underneath the peanut butter, an extravagance that I think was a post-war Midwest thing. Somehow peanut butter toast today, though it’s good, never tastes as good as I remember it then. Even though my mom’s repertoire was humble, it was still home.
When my parents had cocktail parties we kids would be enlisted to pass hors d’oeuvres to the guests. Of course, we’d be all pressed and shiny for the occasion in our party dresses and patent leather Mary Janes. The grown ups would drink their gin and tonics or martinis and say how darling we were. On our tray there would invariably be my mom’s Cheese Cookies, so hot when you first took them from the oven they would burn your tongue. And usually ham roll ups – a slice of ham spread with a layer of mayonnaise then rolled up with a sweet pickle in the middle. Skewered with a toothpick this was cocktail party fare, but back in the kitchen my sister and I skipped the toothpick and just gobbled them up. Little silver dishes of Planters Cocktail Nuts were scattered around the living room.
In the early 70’s we lived in London for a while. It was there that my mom decided to enroll in a cooking class at Le Cordon Bleu. I imagine it was designed for housewives who wanted to entertain. Suddenly the scope of my mom’s menus broadened dramatically. Gourmet dishes with fancy French names started to grace our table. From Mastering the Art of French Cooking there was Julia Child’s Veal Scallopine, and from the class notebook (she kept if for years), Crème Plombières au Chocolat. A chocolate almond mousse surrounded by crumbly Lady Fingers – I still sometimes make it for special occasions.
When I got married my mom gave me a collection of her favorite recipes, each hand-written in a blank book. The recipes have titles like “Auntie Norma’s Beef Stroganoff”, “Mary Baria’s Salmon Mousse” and “Mustard Roast” with a note underneath that says “Peter’s favorite”.
The book is stained and splattered. Even though I’ve collected almost four hundred cookbooks in the 22 years we’ve been married, I still refer to this treasure of family recipes often.
When we celebrated my parent’s 60th wedding anniversary a couple of years ago, we revived some of the favorites from the early days of their marriage, just for old times sake. First on the menu were those famous Cheese Cookies. Before that I hadn’t tasted them in years, now they’re back in my regular rotation. And you know what? They’re as delicious with a glass of Champagne as they are with a gin and tonic.