MY MOM, who died in 1984, wasn’t much of a cook, so don’t look for this to be a nostalgic column about my mother’s wonderful homemade dishes.
I blame some of this on the fact that her own mother died when she was 6 and she didn’t have a mom role model growing up. But her father remarried when she was 12, to a nice woman with whom she got along well and called “Mama.” My grandma was a great cook, and 12 is prime time for girls to start taking an interest in cooking. So I can only conclude that my mom just wasn’t that interested.
I learned character, not cooking
While I didn’t learn lots of cooking tips and recipes at my mother’s knee, I did gain a lot of important character traits from her. Among those are:
Inclusiveness – My mom never disparaged people who were “different” from her, and made sure her children behaved the same way. She would not countenance racial or ethnic slurs, which were very common in the 1950s and 1960s, even among educated people. Although we lived in an all-white neighborhood – the integrated neighborhoods my parents would have preferred were beyond their budget – she made sure we attended multi-ethnic summer camps.
Progressiveness – My parents were staunch liberals and imparted the same values to my siblings and me. Mom was proud that she voted for Henry Wallace, the hopeless Progressive Party candidate, in the 1948 presidential election.
She was morally offended when government failed to help the most downtrodden segments of society or supported any form of censorship; the McCarthy era must have been very difficult for her. She was a member of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.
She never crossed a picket line – except in 1972, when there was a long teacher’s strike in Philadelphia. She had qualified as a teacher late in life, after her children left home, and she felt the children had a stronger case than the teachers so she returned to substitute teaching before the strike was settled. (After that, she didn’t get many calls to sub.)
Curiosity – Mom was super-intelligent. She skipped at least one grade in elementary school and graduated from high school at 16. She liked to learn about lots of different things. She was always reading – not books so much as newspapers and magazines, including Life and Time and the Reader’s Digest. She wouldn’t just breeze through an issue, she’d read it cover-to-cover, absorbing every article. She imparted the same love of reading and curiosity about the world to me and my siblings.
Thrift – Born in 1921 in Poland and brought to Brooklyn at the age of two months, my mother was poor even before the Depression hit. She grew up learning how to make a little go a long way, and her children learned to be frugal as well.
Long before paper towel manufacturers created half-sized sheets, she’d slice a roll in half down to the cardboard tube so that we would use less. She taught us to save gift wrap and ribbons to reuse – but she’s the only person I know who washed and reused plastic wrap, something at which I draw the line. She clipped coupons religiously, something I do as well, though these days there are rarely any worth clipping.
Mom was one of the first people in Philadelphia to buy those coupon books (ours was called the Metro Passbook, similar to the Entertainment book), and we rarely went to a restaurant for which she didn’t have a coupon. She would have loved Groupon!
Forthrightness – My mom had strong opinions and never hesitated to let anyone know what they were. My friends and family say I am the same. In my earlier years I was often far too outspoken for my own good. I like to think I’ve learned some discretion and tact since then.
Keen hearing – My mom could be in another room, hear something someone would mutter under their breath and pipe up with a response. My husband tells me I’m just as bad.
How to fold pillowcases – There’s only one correct way to fold pillowcases, and that’s to fold the short edge in half, then fold it lengthwise in half, and then again in threes. That’s it, end of discussion.
Even if Mom wasn’t a great cook, she fed her family well. We always had meat or chicken (or, rarely, fish), potatoes (or pasta or rice) and a vegetable (canned or frozen, never fresh) at every meal. We drank three glasses of milk every day, just like all the child-rearing experts said we should.
A dynamite spaghetti sauce
The best thing Mom cooked was meat sauce for spaghetti. This was back in the day when you couldn’t get decent sauce in a jar. All of us kids loved it. She always made enough for two meals.
I tinkered with the recipe a bit, substituting fresh garlic for the garlic powder Mom always used and diced tomatoes for tomato puree, which is hard to find these days. And olive oil wasn’t trendy; she used plain old vegetable oil. Times have changed, but this meat sauce is still better than anything you can get from Prego or Ragu.