"What we eat in our childhoods becomes part of us, folded up in our memories and personality"by Wendell Steavenson / December 14, 2016 / Leave a comment
Published in January 2017 issue of Prospect Magazine
My mother was born in New York in 1941, into the rarefied climes of haute Wasp (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant), the American version of nobs. She grew up between the Upper East Side, the family estate in Oyster Bay, Long Island and the country club. “Daddy would come home in the evening and put his hat in the closet and whistle. My mother would have dressed for dinner.” This would be, for example, lamb chops, mashed potato and spinach, served by Maureen, the maid-waitress in the dining room. Butter was rolled into spherical pats and placed on plates with crackers and a butter knife. Her mother told her, “You are never to go in the kitchen or the cook will quit!”
At 15 she was sent to Europe on a chaperoned trip and ate a meal that changed her life. “Pointe du Raz in Brittany, a fisherman’s shack on the pier, a galvanised pail full of seawater and seaweed. You dipped your hand in and pulled up whatever came to hand: crabs, shrimps, clams, snails. There were bowls of pale coloured gloopy stuff on the table—homemade mayonnaise. I had never tasted anything like it. All I’d ever known was Hellmann’s. It was one of the first revelations I had about how food could taste.”
My mother got married when she was 19 and before her wedding she was sent to see the butler in the “big house” on the estate, where her grandparents lived in some splendour. He taught her how to set a table and arrange flowers. As part of her instruction, she was taught basic cookery.
“She got so good at Soufflés that she used to make a tomato Soufflé in a hollowed-out artichoke and a horseradish Soufflé in a beetroot”
She still has the leatherette ring binder filled with pages of recipes that she meticulously typed out and sorted into different categories; Hors d’Oeuvres, Soups, Meat, Salads, Sauces, Pastry. Here is the 1950s dinner party neatly set out. To accompany cocktails: stuffed eggs: onions + curry + anchovy paste; red caviar [jars of dyed lumpfish roe] mixed with sour cream; celery stuffed with cheese or raw hamburger [what the Americans call mince]. Chicken Stroganoff, brown sauce for beef, potato salad Caruso, Crêpes Niçoise Cordon Bleu. Inserted into the file are several magazine clippings. One is the recipe for Frozen Fruit Dessert which calls for cream cheese to be mixed with evaporated milk, melted marshmallows and a can of fruit cocktail before being frozen in muffin tins.
That pail of seafood on the French coast had made my mother want something else. By the end of the 1960s, she had discovered mozzarella at Manganaro’s Italian deli in Hell’s Kitchen, divorced her first husband and married my father, an Englishman who did not play golf, but liked eating. Mum cooked trial and error from the huge brown volumes of The Gourmet Cookbook, “the recipe lasted three pages and always began ‘take a quart of veal stock’ and then you would have to turn to page 243 to find the recipe for veal stock which began, ‘take three pounds of veal bones—’.” Famously she once tried to cook a crème brûlé to impress my father’s boss, but the caramel set so hard and thick no one could crack it.
I am a good cook because I grew up in my mother’s house. What we eat in our childhoods—the tropes and traditions of mealtimes (meat-and-two-veg, Sunday roast, soup when you’re sick, Mum’s apple pie) becomes part of us, folded up in our memories and personality. Times change, casseroles made with canned cream-of-chicken soup and cornflakes go out of fashion, new cuisines and ingredients are introduced, but what we grew up with—for better or worse—is hardwired into our taste buds. My mother still keeps a jar of Hellmann’s; she says tuna salad doesn’t taste the same without it. I love plastic-wrapped cheese slices because when I was small I used to steal them out of the refrigerator in my grandmother’s house in Long Island (no, her grandchildren weren’t allowed in the kitchen either.)
I have been at home a lot recently because my Dad has been ill this year, and most nights Mum and I make supper together. Two cooks in the kitchen is always tricky; mother and daughter adds another dimension of generational push-and-pull. We try and designate one of us chef and the other sous chef, but it never quite works out like that: are you going to chop it into such big pieces?… I would have done it like this… Don’t you want to add the apple later?
We are both competitive ambitious cooks. If I ever wonder where I get my need to present elaborate themed banquets complete with exploding cakes and live rabbits, then I need look no further than my mother’s fantastical food exploits. During a craze at one time (I think it was the early 1980s) for lemon sorbet served in a hollowed-out lemons, Mum extrapolated this for one dinner party to include a variety of fruits from grape sorbet in individual grapes to melon sorbet in a melon. She got so good at soufflés that she used to make a tomato soufflé in a hollowed-out artichoke and a horseradish soufflé in a beetroot as an accompaniment to roast beef. Her dinner-party prowess was once featured in House & Garden magazine. “It gives you a huge buzz,” she told me.
Sometimes I inflict experiments on my parents: half-seared salmon with miso, fried up pork mince with fish sauce and lime, and an endless parade of soggy nutty cakes. I can never get the texture quite right; Dad happily eats them anyway. But most of the time Mum and I revert to standbys. Sausages and mash, chilli and baked potatoes, pork chops and red cabbage, spaghetti carbonara. We watch Masterchef: The Professionals and roll our eyes at the ubiquity of purées and piped dots of gels. We talk about recipes and techniques, restaurants and trends.
“When you have eaten food that has made an impression on you,” Mum said to me one night, after recounting for me (again) the food she ate on her first trip to Europe, “it makes you want to make something that tastes as good. So you keep going at it, until it does. Like mastering hollandaise. And in trying to make things taste good, it never really dawned on me, but I liked doing it, stirring and peeling and making up things.”
And yes, every so often we make lamb chops and mashed potato and spinach, her mother, my grandmother’s, much-lampooned favourite dish and we smile knowingly at each other. How far we’ve come, home to the same place.