My Mother’s Cookbook
Lunch Time Favorites
Schools in my home town didn’t have cafeterias so my brothers and I walked the six blocks home from grade school during the hour we were allowed for lunch. Our father worked in an office on the town square and he also came home for lunch. After lunch, he often took a nap on the davenport, the old word for couch or sofa that my parents still used in the 1940s. My brother Ben, older by five years than me, figured out that loose change sometimes slipped from Dad’s pockets while he was snoozing, and he would harvest the nickels and dimes after our unsuspecting father got up. Alan, only a year older than me, and I watched this procedure with interest, but we were either too timid or intimidated to participate. I don’t know how long this went on before Dad noticed a deficit in his pocket change and, with a reprimand, stopped the flow into his eldest son’s hands.
Our mother would not have noticed, having been preoccupied in the kitchen cleaning up after lunch. In those days the lunches she prepared were complete meals for a family of six. She wasn’t keen on sandwiches, nor did she like soups that weren’t meat based. Mom believed in serving hot and hearty food to nourish our growing selves and sustain us through the afternoon walk to and from school, plus three more hours of school work. As a result, everyone in her family had that well-padded look of people fed by a woman who loved to cook.
Soup is one of the comforting foods we enjoyed when the weather turned cool in autumn. The humid heat of Iowa summer was behind us, and Mom liked being able to use the oven again to bake cookies and bread and to warm the kitchen with the enticing aroma of soup as thick as stew. I learned to like lentils at an early age because of her vegetable beef soup.
Vegetable Beef Soup
1 large soup bone
¼ pound ground beef
2 diced carrots
1 diced onion
1 1/2 cups shredded cabbage
2 large fresh or one 15-ounce can of diced tomatoes
½ cup lentils (barley can be used if preferred)
½ teaspoon salt
¼ ground pepper
Optional: 1 bay leaf
Put the soup bone in a large pot and add enough water to cover it, add salt. Cover the pot and simmer 2 ½ hours or until meat falls from the bone. Remove soup bone; after it has cooled, cut off any meat for the soup. Add ground beef, meat from bone, carrots, onion, lentils, pepper and optional bay leaf to the broth. Cover and simmer for 40 minutes. Add tomatoes and cabbage and cook another 10 minutes. If the soup is too thick, add some canned beef broth. Serves six people.
Presentation of food was important to Mom, the last ingredient that brought the combination of food colors, flavors and textures into a unified whole. She liked to select just the right dishes, glasses, serving bowls and cutlery for the meals she served. Years later, when she was elderly and no longer had the energy to prepare entire meals for us when we came home to visit, we took over the cooking duties under her exacting guidance. But selection of the menu and the accoutrements to serve the meal was still her prerogative, something she liked to think about ahead of time and then ask us to carry out. At the time I didn’t understand the importance of this ritual, but now I can see that it was her way of continuing to participate in the art of cooking that she so enjoyed.
We had plenty of items to choose from. A built-in floor to ceiling cabinet in the dining room held china, crystal, cake stands, tea pots and other paraphernalia that had accumulated since the family moved into the house in 1886. These items were mostly used for special occasions. More wooden cabinets in the kitchen contained the tableware we used for every day and the pots and pans for cooking. The kitchen cabinets had been installed when the house was built around 1880, and they still hold what is left of the Fiestaware dishes and Fostoria hobnail tumblers that Mother used to serve us our lunchtime favorites.
She liked to bring out the silver-plated soup tureen that had been in the family since my father was a child. The tureen had big round curves and curlicues and a matching lid and ladle. There wasn’t room for all six of us at the kitchen table so we ate in the dining room, Dad serving the meal from his place at the head of the table. Bean soup was a favorite of my paternal grandmother Buddy, who was always the first to be served. She liked the soup in the old way, with a piece of bread placed in the bottom of a low-rimmed bowl and the soup poured over it. That is still a good way to enjoy this soup. If you prefer your bread on the side, good artisanal or homemade bread, spread with butter or dipped in olive oil, make a fine alternative.
Navy Bean Soup
2 ham hocks
2 cups navy beans
1 sliced yellow onion
Soak beans overnight or use the quick soak method (cover the beans with water and a lid, bring to a boil and then turn off the heat and soak for several hours). Put ham hocks in a large pot and cover with water. Cover the pot and simmer for 2 hours. Drain the beans from the soaking water and add to broth in the pot with sliced onion. Simmer, still covered, an hour or so until the beans are done. Serves six people.
Optional: Garnish each bowl of soup with some mild chopped onion.
We had only one high school in our town, and part of the first floor was used for 7th and 8th grade classes. The classic two-story brick school building was built when my father was a teenager, and he and his two younger sisters had graduated from the school 30 years before I first walked up the steps to attend classes. I faced the transition to that “grown-up” high school building with the usual fears, but I didn’t have to face that first day alone. My friend Twyla lived a block from my house, and we met every morning to walk the remaining three blocks to the high school, discussing our new routine of changing rooms and teachers after each class. Twyla had been my walking companion throughout most of grade school. We first met in Kindergarten, and she lived in a different house only a block from school. One day I innocently went with my new friend to her home to play, having somehow escaped the oversight of my older brothers. My mother tracked me down soon enough, and I saw when she came for me that what I’d done had frightened her.
High school was in session from 8:00 a.m. to noon, so I was plenty hungry by the time I got home for lunch. In those days we knew nothing of the snack or brunch breaks that junior and senior high school students enjoy today. Whatever they are able to buy from vending machines or cafeterias can’t match the smell of freshly baked gingerbread that greeted me when I came into the house one cold winter day.
Ginger and molasses were staples of early American cooking, dating from colonial times, and several recipes in my mother’s cookbook contain these ingredients. We decorated gingerbread men at Christmas time and enjoyed ginger cookies year round. This gingerbread recipe comes from my maternal grandmother whom we called Meemock, the name Ben gave her when his toddler’s tongue could not say grandma. Meemock wasn’t as dedicated a cook as her daughter, but she did have a way with sweet recipes.
2/3 cup butter
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup sorghum
1 cup sour milk or buttermilk
2 ½ cups flour
½ teaspoon each: ground cloves, cinnamon, ginger
1 teaspoon baking soda
Cream butter and sugar; add eggs, beating several minutes after each addition. Add sorghum and milk alternately with flour, spices and soda. Pour batter into 9-inch square greased pan. Bake at 325 degrees for 1 hour or until cake springs back when you touch it in the center.
Whatever else I ate for lunch that day was overshadowed by this savory gingerbread. I covered the cake-like bread, still warm from the over, with butter. It tasted so good that I took another and then another piece. I have no idea how much of the rich concoction I ate before I finally had the sense to stop. I do remember feeling overstuffed and lethargic all afternoon, knowing that I’d eaten far more than I needed to satisfy my taste buds and hunger. That episode gave me fair warning about the consequences of overindulgence, and I have managed to be more moderate in my gluttony, at least most of the time, since then. Luckily I didn’t destroy my taste for Meemock’s gingerbread and still like making and eating it today.