My mom died last Saturday night. Twenty years to the day that my father died. The irony in that is that my father was a non-drinking, non-smoking, healthy-eating runner who died at 73. She left me at 92. Never cared what she ate or drank and hated exercise. There’s a lesson there.
She was not a worrier. My father worried. “I’m not gonna dwell on it.” was her mantra. And she didn’t. I wish I could be like her. Currently I have a laundry list of things I’m worrying about including but not limited to . . . I won’t bore you with it.
But we were alike in a lot of ways. Food for instance. And art. And a fascination with small instances of beauty. A red leaf, a feather. Her house and apartments were filled with the tiny debris of that kind of fascination. I found this in her apartment when she was moving into assisted living. It is a feather that came out of one of her pillows and she put it in this plastic box. I totally get it. I have it hanging in my kitchen now.
This was my all time favorite meal as a kid as I said. I went and got the right (fatty) beef for the job, the green apple and followed the recipe exactly. It was not quite the same. I imagine my mother’s curry powder was not the same as mine. Mine in fact may have been better than my mother’s but it was not my mother’s.
I ate it happily but the wave of warmth and nostalgia I expected to wash over me never happened.
I like her comments at the end of the recipe. “Add as much water as you like, within reason of course…” This is how Indians write recipes.
Many many many years ago the Oconomowoc Shopper, a weekly local newspaper and coupon extravaganza, featured my mother’s recipes. I recall thinking that she was famous. Mrs Patrick J Dillon in the newspaper. It carried 2 of my favorites, stew and curried beef—my personal favorite which I always asked for on my birthday—never mind that no Indian would ever curry beef. What did we know? I loved it. I also loved her stew and since trying times require comfort food, I decided to make it. The stew meat I bought was suspiciously unfatty. And I know my mom would have been using a fatty cheap cut of meat, most likely pot roast. She also would never have used mushrooms, much less fresh ones.
I followed her recipe otherwise. Yeah, no. The meat was all wrong. Tough as nails after an hour and a half. And it had a distinctly livery taste. I ate it but it was not comforting. And as far as being “delightfully different,” I have no idea what braintrust came up with that name, it should have been “Yeah, Same Ol’ Stew.”
As I recall, the best part was pouring the gravy over Wonder bread. I neglected to get the Wonder bread, though. I wish Wonder bread came in smaller packages. Of course, then I’d have to deal with that packaging issue.
Ah, the fabled fried cabbage and noodles. My sisters and I have deep regard for this humble dish. There is no recipe (until now) and as far as we know this came over from Czechoslovakia with my great-grandmother. When I was in the Czech Republic recently I asked several people if they’d ever heard of it but no, no one had. I’ve googled it and come up with nothing. Of course who knows how it’s spelled but I’ve done some intense (well, intense in the sense that I’ve scrolled down a little on a google search page) research on the topic and come up pretty empty handed. The tour guide we had in Prague seemed to think that it’s a made up family name but zelí is Czech for cabbage at least. The vaslesia is up for grabs.
WUWM has a series about unwritten family recipes. And, as it happens they interviewed me last Sunday about zelívasešia and my family’s relationship to it.
My grandmother died when my mother was 12 and this may account for our love of it. It was pretty much all we had of our grandmother whom my mother loved so much. We used to love to hear stories about her although there weren’t many. And we had a kind of reverence about this dish.
After the interview which took place in my home as I made it. I took the leftovers (the photographer and interviewer both ate bowls of it) and gave it to my mother. She took a bite and exclaimed “Oh Michael!!” She ate all of it.
The diacritical marks are my own it just looks more Czechoslovakian with them.
Fried cabbage with noodles
1 medium head of cabbage core removed, grated.
While my mother did this on a box grater which took the better part of a day. I used a food processor which took the better part of a minute. It should look finely chopped.
3 TBs butter divided
Salt and pepper
Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil.
For the noodles
1/2 tsp salt
2 TB water
1 cup flour
Scant 1/4 tsp nutmeg
Whisk the eggs, salt water and nutmeg together, whisk in flour. A stiff paste will form.
Press this paste through the large holes of a colander directly into the boiling water. After a minute or two remove from water and strain. Set aside. It’s ok to let it cool
For the cabbage
Melt 2 TB butter in a large frying pan
Add cabbage, salt and pepper to taste
Fry over medium high heat until the cabbage begins to brown (you can add a few TBs water if it’s getting too dry)
Once the cabbage is browning and looks slightly wilted, this will take about 6 or 7 minutes, make a well in the middle by pushing the cabbage to the side add the 3rd TB of butter and then the noodles. fry until browning and then mix cabbage and noodles together. Taste for seasoning.
When I was a kid my aunt Mary got on all sorts of food kicks. She would discover some damn thing or other and be all over it for 3 months. There was a bleu cheese on lettuce thing, Welsh rarebit, I believe that dry roasted peanuts just came out and she was crazy for them, she just freaking loved Stouffer’s pre-made meals, then she started putting curry in potato salad. I loved that. Well, to be honest I liked all her crack-pot food fixations. For some reason, my mother did not, they annoyed her. I think that she felt competitive. If Mary liked something I ADORED it. Welsh rarebit? I’ll take 2. Dry roasted peanuts? Yes, please. And when I helpfully suggested that my mother add curry to her potato salad her response was something like, “Pfff, as if.”
Well, I still like it. I like my mother’s too, (just in case she’s reading this) and it’s usually what I make but this past weekend I made Mary’s curried version. It was delicious.
I don’t know how my mother (and all my forebears) did this. The freaking shit is ripe at the hottest time of the year and you have to can when it’s ready. Especially if you planned on eating later in the year. OK, it turns out that I can go to the store and get other food so I’m not actually all that dependent on preserved foods but I am not so many generations removed from people who really did rely, at least in some part, on the food they could put by.
It was 90 out when I was making tomato sauce. I have airconditioning and it was still hot. My mother did not. I don’t even recall that she had a fan. And she didn’t just can tomatoes there were also 2 kinds of pickles and beans. We scavenged choke cherries and wild raspberries and she made jelly. The kitchen was a steaming hell. She never complained. (This is one aspect in which I do not take after her.)
I really hate using a food mill. My mom must not have liked it either because she used to have me do this. Raspberries have a lot of seeds.
Once the sauce is done (and it must chill for 24 hours for maximum flavor) there’s nice meal. This year it included my mother, my sister Peggy who flew in from LA along with her husband and son (and the Royal Indian Mounted Food Control Police). The meal started with antipasto and cheese which was followed by Italian mac & cheese and sugu. And ending with a spectacular Christmas pudding, the RIMFCP’s contribution to the meal.
As I’ve said. this is the best meal I can think of.
The next day my mother (who has memory problems and didn’t recall the meal) told me that, for some reason, she could not get Tony Caccamise out of her mind.