Sophie Coors, the Southern folk-style artist, taught my sister to blow spit bubbles. They were at some fancy seated luncheon, the kind with strict expectations for behavior – a wedding or graduation party or New Year’s formal event that required Margaret’s attendance, participation and compliance.
Margaret was not the compliant type, especially not at that age of four or five. She was deemed hyperactive by her teachers until my mother, and then the teachers, realized Margaret was just bored.
Sophie wasn’t really the compliant type either. Smart, talented, funny, and wildly bohemian, she was one of the few women my parents referred to as a woman, not a girl or lady. She had all the training and credentials for both Memphis society and fine art painting, and she balanced her overlapping worlds by looking fabulous in iconic 70s style while telling terribly dirty jokes.
That day at the luncheon Sophie apparently looked at little Margaret, recognized a sheep of her own bored flock, and decided spit bubbles were just the thing to get them both out of a pinch.
At least that’s the story that made its way back to our house. I wasn’t at the party but could imagine the scene, my imagination aided by Margaret’s exuberant re-enactment. She was so pleased with herself, my mischief-making genius sister who was probably, even at that age, calculating the tensile strength of saliva.
The spit bubble re-enactment was met with our mother’s firm but gentle disapproval as we sat around the kitchen table, forks on the left, knives and spoons on the right, napkins in our laps. But the correction was more gentle than disapproving, because in our house of family theatrics the kitchen was merely the green room, a place for getting the ya-yas out and rehearsing our parts, preparing for holidays and other special events on the main stage.
Our kitchen looked clearly not ready for prime time: mustard yellow linoleum floors, painted aluminum cabinets, mismatched furniture. Signalling a next-generation move to open plans and great rooms, it had a double window sized opening to the adjacent den. There were wooden shutters to seal the two rooms in privacy, but we never closed them.
The dining room, in contrast, featured a long table of deep green marble atop a Knoll base, French chairs covered in ruby velvet, imported gold leaf wallpaper, and twin buffet nooks painted bright coral and lined with mirrors. It was everything the kitchen was not: sophisticated, precise and adult. The swinging door between the two rooms might as well have been a transport device.
While we were in the sticky finger stage, Margaret and I were rarely allowed to eat in the dining room. And since we ate dinner as a family every night, every night we ate in the kitchen. We would clear the table of homework or Candyland, set it properly (with a bit of coaching), say ‘goddess great’ (really, I was 10 or 12 before I realized those weren’t the words), and enjoy whatever my mother had prepared, often chicken, seldom Brussels sprouts.
If all this sounds a bit too Norman Rockwell, know that I’ve left out the bits about how Margaret once poured a full glass of milk over my head and the million times we played the “see food” game. I’ve left out that we made up our own silly nonsensical language, intentionally excluding our parents. Whatever things we said to each other in that special code, we often laughed hard enough to snort, an unpleasant development if dinner included green peas.
I don’t remember being taught to sear meat, make a reduction or prepare Béchamel for a soufflé. These were just things my mother did while preparing dinner, and I learned by passive observation and occasional active participation. My mother wasn’t fussy about her cooking and even less so about her teaching. If something burned, she threw it out. If something turned out well, she tried to remember and write it down.
Her pots were all Revere Ware, a set given as a wedding gift. Once when she was making crepes the skillet handle got too close to the next burner, and it melted and then cracked to pieces when it cooled. Instead of replacing it, Mama just used a pot holder when cooking, saying it did the job just fine, just like the rest of the kitchen, the place where I learned to cook, to sort sets and subsets, to answer the phone, and, of course, to use good table manners.
Until very recently if you’d asked me what happened to our kitchen life, what knocked us loose from our moorings, I’d have told you it was solely and entirely my parents’ divorce. Just before I learned to drive, my parents separated and we moved, my mother sister and I, into an apartment without much of a kitchen or dining room either. It was only temporary, but even when we settled into another real house we couldn’t regain our old kitchen rhythm. Perhaps it was a floor plan fault, but honestly we were all a bit Humpty Dumpty by then, no matter how we arranged the furniture.
What I couldn’t see, not until lately, were the dozens of other factors conspiring to keep us adrift: the evolution from Shake ‘n Bake to Dean & Deluca, Sealtest to Hagen-Daz, from linoleum to granite. It wasn’t just our kitchen that disappeared, it was a polar shift from ordinary to glamorous that happened all around us, green rooms replaced by show rooms.
When I moved into a family house of my own, I wanted the kitchen to be its heart, the way my growing up kitchen had been. I was determined to regain purchase, to establish my own family equilibrium. I would make it better, stronger, faster than what I had known growing up.
But the chasm between adolescence and adulthood had distorted my vision. Instead of the familiar wobbly chairs and gate-legged table, I wanted what glossy magazines said Living should look like. I watched HGTV and Food Network. I clipped pages from Veranda and studied IKEA hacks for having the perfect life. Pendant lights and seasonal ice buckets and one cleverly placed upholstered chair, that’s what our kitchen needed. Perhaps some matching melamine plates for choreographed outdoor soirées.
Fortunately for me I have neither compliant children nor a conformist husband. I have spit-bubble-blowing pea shooters and mischief makers who, early on, plastered Incredibles and smiley-face stickers across the top of my pristine, whitewashed pine table. I have dogs that leave behind a constant dusting of fur and dirt. I have piles of homework papers and junk mail, and an Orbeez display that never seems to leave the windowsill no matter how many times I ask that it be put away. Despite my fervent Pottery Barn longings, I have mismatched pots, mismatched chairs and chipped dishes.
Until recently, if you’d asked me what I dreamed of I’d have shown you that picture perfect frame of a picture perfect family, seated around an artfully rustic kitchen table. Then one afternoon not too long ago, on no particularly special day, I shoved the stack of papers aside, begged for a short break in the sibling bickering, set chili on the table, and realized I was home.
Food | Week of October 27, 2014
So, yes, if you’ve been following along and paying attention, then you know you just got an excerpt from a draft of the book I’ve been working on. And yes, it will also have recipes and photographs – at least that’s how it’s coming together in my mind. It may come together only in my mind, but it’s fun for me nevertheless.
Writing recipes for others to prepare is more daunting than I might have thought. Cooking has always come naturally to me, so I find I’m quick to leave out important details and instructions. Work in progress, that’s what it is. While I’m still working those things out, I’ll keep sharing proven recipes in my weekly line-up. As always, if you find something you like, please let me know.
Grit cakes are the Southern equivalent of fried polenta squares – same basic ingredients and process. They are a nice substitution for meat in a dinner, especially good with a hearty helping of vegetables like Ina Garten’s Balsamic Roasted Beet Salad and maybe some fresh fall carrots.
Spiced Lamb in Pita | Mediterranean Platter
These lamb pita pockets are easy to make and well-liked by my children. Serve with some stuffed grape leaves, stuffed peppers and an assortment of olives, all of which should be available at your local grocer or specialty market.
Slow-cooked Greens | Cornbread
Use collard or turnip greens, or a mix from the farmers market (most farmers have a cooler full of mixed cooking greens this time of year). The cooking liquid and ham hock are what give the greens their good flavor, of course. If you need a recipe, this one from Tyler Florence is good and easy to follow. Serve with cornbread, made from scratch or from the Jiffy box. It’s summer, no judging.
Simple Green Salad | Grilled Chicken | Crepes with Berries & Cream
Salad and dessert, you may recall, was one of my mother’s favorite dinner combinations. A simple green salad (lettuce, celery, cucumber, maybe some red onion) with a basic vinaigrette and some simple grilled chicken breasts is plenty for dinner if dessert is the star. We froze berries early in the summer and are now starting to use them so there’s no danger of freezer burn. I like to serve the crepes alone with fruit and whipped cream on the side; the option is to roll the fruit inside the crepe and top with cream (or ice cream).
It just wouldn’t be right to write about my growing-up kitchen and not include my mother’s cheese soufflé recipe (again). There are plenty of recipes online if you want more specifics, but I make it the way my mother did and it works every time: Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Butter a soufflé dish and coat with grated cheese (Parmesan works well). Make a white sauce: 3 Tablespoons butter, 3 Tablespoons of flour (melt butter; stir in flour to make a roux), 1 1/2 cups hot milk (whisk hot milk into roux to make sauce). Remove sauce from heat and stir in 6 ounces cheese, grated or cubed (Gruyere is the standard; I use whatever we have, which is often just cheddar). Separate 5 eggs. Stir a couple of spoonfuls of the cheese sauce into the yolks to warm them up, then add warmed yolks into saucepan and whisk well. Season with salt, and a bit of cayenne pepper. Beat eggs whites until stiff. Add half of the whites to the cheese base and mix well. Fold in the other half of the whites (you’ll see egg white showing), then transfer to souffle dish. Put it in the oven and reduce heat to 375/380 degrees. Cook for about 30 minutes.