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Author D.J. Waldie on the greatest gift

A mother's generous approach to food in an era of limited choices still sustains.

December 23, 2009|By D. J. Waldie
  (Justin Renteria / For The…)

I was going to bring something to the office for the holidays the other day. I pulled out my mother's baking sheets and thought, but only for a moment, that I should make a couple dozen chocolate chip cookies, straight from the recipe on the bag of chocolate chips, just as my mother did every year at Christmas.

I didn't. You can't serve your nostalgia that way. Only in memory. I remember that when I was a boy, my mother was the best cook in the neighborhood.

Lots of sons remember their mother's cooking as being the best. But my mother's cooking really was the best in my neighborhood. In the 1950s, I lived among families who had known the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, who had gone through wartime rationing, among housewives who knew food only as the opposite of going hungry, among husbands in their early 30s who insisted on eating poorly because they had been poor most of their lives. On the tract house plains of South Gate, Downey, north Long Beach and Bellflower, meals reflected what you still stubbornly held on to. And if you ate to remember, many of the memories were of loss.

In my working-class suburb -- "Tomorrow's City Today" -- the future of food hadn't arrived yet. Shopping was mostly done on foot and often, since most housewives either couldn't drive or didn't have a car. The Helms Bakery truck came by with its smoothly sliding, glossy wood drawers. And so did a guy who had converted a former transit bus with shelves and a propane cooler to bring cigarettes, milk and breakfast cereal to the car-less. People in the neighborhood who had a bigger lot kept a few chickens and sold the eggs.

The Boys Market at the distant end of my block had long aisles of packaged and canned goods, but the fresh vegetable counters still followed the seasons. Heads of iceberg lettuce -- the only kind available -- dwindled in winter. Corn on the cob arrived only in July. Butcher cuts of local beef weren't very good, and the Farmer John company pitched its pork products as "easternmost in quality, westernmost in flavor." There were times you couldn't get chicken, but you could get rabbit. Fresh fish was hard to find. Cardinal McIntyre in the weekly Catholic Tidings recommended "tunies" (tuna hot dogs) for Lenten Fridays. Some grocery stores showcased an aisle of frozen food, but the Coldspot refrigerator at home had room in its freezer compartment for only two or three rectangular blocks of peas.

A special alchemy

As a percentage of average family income, food in the 1950s was expensive. But on a $100-a-week paycheck you could still feed a family. The results were hardly memorable if all you knew was Wonder Bread and margarine, a roast cooked dark and hard, watery string beans, plenty of mashed potatoes and Jell-O for dessert. My mother began with the same roast, the same potatoes, but the beef turned out savory, the side dishes were respectable, and there was always a salad (served, California-style, at the beginning, which initially puzzled my New York-born parents).

My family's food habits were unfamiliar in other ways, an inheritance that marked my family. My parents went through a martini-before-dinner phase when my sophisticated uncle lived with us. They drank red wine with the spaghetti and meat sauce my mother always made on Saturdays (to be served as leftovers on Mondays, always tasting even better). We ate at 7 p.m. or later, though everyone else in the neighborhood ate dinner at 5:30 p.m. My brother, my parents and I always ate dinner together. Dinner was always served with two vegetables. And breakfast was always two USDA Grade AA eggs fried over easy in butter and served with two strips of overcooked bacon on the side, toast and more butter as my mother prepared her sons for school and heart disease.

My mother cooked plain food like this, almost untouched by the recipes in the women's magazines she read or even those in the copy of Irma Rombauer's "The Joy of Cooking" she kept in the cabinet over the refrigerator. She preferred a baked potato to Rice-A-Roni, anything simple to anything that technologized either the food or the experience of eating.

My mother cooked the same seven or eight meals in weekly rotation for decades, punctuated by the obligatory dinners for Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter, when we used her wedding silverware. It became rote cooking -- measured out in cans of Hunt's tomato paste, packs of Birds Eye frozen Brussels sprouts and pounds of stew meat -- but my mother treated the ingredients with enough respect that they always seemed more than just nourishment. When my brothers' friends and mine were invited to dinner -- and tasted medium-rare roast beef for the first time -- they always fell in love with my mother over dinner. Extraordinary how potent Lawry's Seasoned Salt was. It was as if my family and the families on my block ate on two different continents, the width of a dinner table apart.

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