I’ve picked a word for the year ahead, and that word is…
… Well, I’ll get to that.
But first, a story about my mother.
(Yes, all of the January posts will be about food and cooking, and many of them will also be about my mother, because January is the time when I think of her most.)
My mother’s favorite dessert was crème brûlée. She prepared it in little white ramekins, and she “brûléed” under the oven broiler unit, not with a torch, because in the oven was how she learned to do it and because it would never have occurred to my mother to buy, or use, a torch for home cooking.
A few (very few) restaurants served crème brûlée that met her standard, and her standard was that the recipe use heavy cream, not milk or half and half. She could taste the difference from a single bite.
Her second favorite dessert was crème anglaise, which she almost always called by that specific name. She made it infrequently but well, serving it over pound cake or berries, or sometimes just in a glass.
To simplify here, as the cooks among you already understand: My mother’s favorite dessert was custard. She preferred it baked, with a hard, burnt sugar crust, but boiled was a very close runner-up.
So well known was my mother’s love for custard that the week before she died her friend Eloise, with bright white hair and signature bright lipstick, appeared at my mother’s door holding a quart jar full. “Your mother made this for me every week when I was recovering a few years ago,” Eloise said, “so I thought I would return the good favor.”
Mama made custard well enough and often enough that she needed no recipe, though there is one, of sorts, in her green metal recipe card box (and yes, I’ll share that at the very end).
So I come by my love of cream quite naturally from my mother who also used cream, as I wrote recently, to make scalloped potatoes.
What else did my mother love, that I, too, love?
Spinach, for one. Blueberries, figs, pears, peaches, okra, broccoli, green beans, lady peas, vine-ripened tomatoes, and melons, for a few others.
Except in the case of spinach (more on this later), she wouldn’t have considered adorning a single item on that list with anything other than a bit of salt and pepper, where needed.
When my sister and I were teenagers, our bodies did normal teenage things that bodies do as they morph into the bodies of women. In our case, this morphing was guided by genes from our taller, broader father. Standing next to our 5’2″, 100 lb. mother, the two of us looked like Amazons.
At the same time we were going through our teenage growth spurts, the “diet” industry was on the verge of exploding. Diet books (Scarsdale and Atkins, among others), liquid diets (SlimFast), diet pills (long since removed from the market but widely available then), and fat-free “foods” were all the rage. Jane Brody’s Good Food book followed soon after, and my sister and I waged an unsuccessful campaign to get our mother to swap the cream for skim milk, swap the occasional (very occasional) crème brûlée for fat-free brownies with fat-free ice cream.
She agreed, unwillingly, to try what we asked her to try, but in the end she remained unpersuaded.
“Metron Ariston,” was her most common rebuttal. “All things in moderation. Fresh vegetables, fresh fruits, and sometimes, a little cream. In the end, it all balances out.”
My patient, careful, Capricorn mother, who loved cream and fresh vegetables and the Classics and moderation would be so very upset at the state of things today, at how very unbalanced things seem to be.
At the same time, though, I suspect she would hold great hope for what might come next, believing both the world at large and people in general to be more good than not good.
In each of the years following her death I’ve come to see a different gift that she left behind for her two daughters. Like little Advent calendar windows, a new insight opens every year, often on Twelfth Night.
The most readily available of her legacy gifts was optimism, though close behind was her resilience.
She had a wry sense of humor, a true gift for cooking.
She was a reader, one who disliked Donna Tartt and had mixed feelings about Joan Didion.
She was also, of course, a writer.
All of those gifts have morphed, like our once-teenage bodies, into different shapes within my sister and me. We’ve each come to know things about our mother in different ways and at different times.
This year’s revelation, for me, is something I’ll wager my sister is also seeing, if differently.
This year what I recognize from my mother’s legacy is an ancient idea: Sophrosyne.
One of the first spirits (a good spirit) to escape Pandora’s box, Sophrosyne was the spirit of internal balance and well-being. Though now sometimes associated with restrictive restraint (chastity, abstinence, etc.), Sophrosyne is the virtue of self-knowledge, self-control, temperance, and prudence.
Were my mother still here, what she would most likely do, in heat of current events, on the eve of an inconceivable insurrection, would be to continue in her daily routines of gardening, reading, cooking, checking in with the people she loved, and resting when she was tired.
She would, most likely, continue to be guided by an inner temperance that defined her in ways I’m only now coming to see.
In laywoman’s terms: A little cream, not too often and not too much, and never swapped for skim milk.
That is my hope for what might be ahead, for all of us.
Betty’s Custard (Crème Anglaise)
You’ve made it this far, and now I’m going to disappoint you with the recipe, because here’s what the note reads:
Beat together; cook until coats wooden spoon.
That’s it. That’s all she wrote.
On the bright side? There’s no way to get it wrong. Just be careful not to let it curdle while cooking (low heat, lots of stirring, watch carefully).
Betty’s Creamed Spinach
Actually, this one will be either disappointing or invigorating in exactly the same way.
1 pkg. frozen chopped spinach
That’s it. That’s the whole thing. Do with that what you will.
Happy Twelfth Night.