I MADE PEA SOUP last Sunday night. I do not grow peas. That’s the end of today’s gardening column.
The soup burbled away on the stove top in my orange Le Creuset Dutch oven, which was my mother’s. It’s well over 50 years old and still in fine fettle; when they say these last a lifetime, they’re not kidding. I use it for soups and stews and sauces, as she did.
I don’t grow spinach either, but use my mother’s ricer when I need to drain every speck of water from the leaves, for pasta or creamed spinach. Like her, I also use it for mashed potatoes and apple sauce (though sometimes I leave that last lumpy). The ricer once had red handles, but the color began to wear away a few decades ago. I caught my Prince sanding it one day and screamed. Those red bits are pieces of my childhood, it was as if he were sanding away my mother.
Mama envied me my starting-out kitchen, with all the shiny new cooking gear. “I wish mine would wear out,” she said one day with a sigh. No such luck, Ma. There’s not much left of my original batterie de cuisine, while her stuff keeps steaming along.
I’m thinking of this today because Washington Post columnist John Kelly wrote about eggbeaters, which sent me down a trail. I’m wondering where the family egg beater went.
Then, in the obituaries, was a notice of the February 6 death of Maria Guarnaschelli, who, among many other things, supervised revisions to the Joy of Cooking, which many regard as biblical. Out of the original 4,500 recipes, she left only 50 unchanged, eliminating such fascinating features as How to Skin a Squirrel, and how to prepare woodchuck, muskrat, porcupine, raccoon, bear (careful: The fat turns rancid very quickly) and turtle soup—from scratch. Not that I ever slaughtered and cooked
any of these critters, but I read every word with fascination. Talk about erasing American history. Heresy!
Back to the future. The potato peeler is a bit bent from time in the garbage disposal, but still usable. I do have a new ergonomic number with fat cushioned handle; it’s fine but has no romance. I have her double-bladed hand chopper too, sitting in readiness in case the food processor breaks and I need to make chopped liver.
In better shape is the garlic press: It may have been shiny five decades ago, now it’s dull gray, but still so strong I think I could take a hammer to it without denting the metal. Dad used to press cloves through and rub them on these three-inch-thick porterhouse steaks he’d grill on the terrace, cancerously charred on the outside, red inside, eaten at the wrought-iron table that’s now on my back porch.
I have her three cast-iron pans, nesting sizes. A few years after Dad died, Mama and I spent a week frying chicken in the largest one.
That was in 1978. I was living in DC but commuting to New York for a week each month, staying with her as my job took me around to bookstores peddling extremely esoteric remainder books. (It was a true test of sales skill to unload a few hundred copies of Robin W. Doughty’s opus, Feather Fashions and Bird Preservation, which one can still find, used, on Amazon.)
Anyway. I always thought that a proper dinner was a meat, a green veg and a starch. That’s what we ate every single night of my youth. It shocked me to my very core, that trip, when Mom cut up a small chicken on my first night home, and announced that we were going to teach ourselves to make fried chicken. Something so seemingly easy defied us both.
That’s all we ate. No salad, no potato, just fried chicken. When that attempt was not impressive, we tried again the next night, and the next. We tried it with the pan covered, uncovered, pieces crowded and spaced, various seasonings. Each attempt a near miss. A solid week of fried chicken, no sides.
I was perfectly content—just shocked that she was too.
Some months later she would stun me with her marijuana crop, lovingly nurtured on her south-facing terrace, but this was my first sight of her as an individual who just wanted to eat damn fried chicken, screw the veggies.
She was an amazing cook, no stranger to frying. Her latkes were sublime. But great fried chicken remained beyond her.
I prefer Popeyes.
LittleBird “Stephanie Gardens” loves growing things, but she excels at cooking them up, according to a grateful guest at her table (ahem).
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