For all the times that my mother and I have stood hip-to-hip slicing apples for sauce, stirring soups, and making big batches of chocolate chip cookies, I don't know that we've ever really talked about cooking. She grew up in the 50's and 60's, when convenience foods like canned beans and Spaghetti-O's were coming into popularity and the role of women in the kitchen was starting to look very different. I was sure she'd have some interesting stories to share with us for Family History Week; I only needed to ask.
Describe your mother in the kitchen. Did she like being there? Was she relaxed? Hurried?
I remember her in the kitchen most of the time. There were four of us kids, after all! A lot of my associations with my mom are with her cooking. I especially remember her making homemade bread. She didn't do it all the time, but sometimes we'd come home from school and she'd have the bread rising in front of the heater. We'd smell it when we walked in. Always white bread. And it was always a big deal when she made it.
Do you think she liked cooking?
I think she got really tired of doing it. Maybe she liked it at the beginning of her marriage and for the first few kids, but I think she got tired later on.
We were 50's babies, born right after the war, and that was the era where all these packaged cake mixes started coming out along with canned vegetables. That was a big deal. My mom grew up hand-canning everything: beans, peaches, tomatoes, everything. They had a summer kitchen, a covered outdoor kitchen with a stove, just to can and bake during the hot summer months. So all these packaged things were like a miracle. Mom and every housewife in the country was cooking with them.
She was a good cook, though. She was a creative cook. She'd do stuff without recipes. I think my skill at doing that came from her.
What was your favorite dish growing up?
Macaroni and cheese from scratch. And Chef Boyardee's spaghetti-os, the one with those little round noodles. That was a big deal out of the can. But for mac and cheese, Mom never bought the packaged stuff: she always made it from scratch.
I can also tell you that one of my not favorite foods was liver. This was universal to all the kids in our family. Someone told Mom that we should have liver once a week, but we couldn't stand it. She sautéed it in a pan with butter and onions. Dad loved liver and onions, but for us kids, the only way we would eat it was between two sweet pickles. Our pickle-liver sandwich...It was awful. I have not eaten liver since I was a child.
Was there a special dish that you had for celebrations or holidays?
There were some years where my dad had a garden at Dr. Chapel's house and grew raspberries. It was probably two miles to walk up there to pick those raspberries, and then the big thing was to make raspberry pie. You make pie crust—which Grandma was a master at making, of course. You'd bake the crust first, cool it, and then fill it with straight berries. Then you take some more berries and make a sauce with sugar and cornstarch. Pour this over all the raspberries and then cool it in the fridge. It sets up like gelatin and you can cut a piece of pie from it. We'd have whipped cream on it. That was so good.
What were meals like in your house growing up?
Chaotic. All six of us at the table at once. All crowded in a little tiny eating space. It was not a formal thing. We talked and laughed. We were always all there together.
How did you learn to cook?
Mom didn't teach us to cook. Sometimes we had jobs to do, but she didn't really formally teach us. She wanted us girls to know that there were more important things to do than just cooking and cleaning.
I learned how to cook when I had my first apartment in college, when I was a junior. I had no idea how to cook anything. So I called my mom up and she told me how to do it.
What's the first thing you remember cooking?
Probably chicken and rice. But those days you got canned chicken. Already cooked, canned chickens. Canning was big then, remember! That was the convenience food. People didn't go out to eat very often.
And the second thing I learned how to make was Shit on a Shingle. That was dried beef in a creamy white sauce on a piece of toast. I think that came from the army. My roommate and I made that a lot in college.
What's your favorite thing to cook now?
I really prefer to bake more than cook. Cookies! In the whole world, I love cookies the most. I think I have had every cookie book there ever was. I'm serious! If there was one in the grocery store, I would get it. Christmas? Oh my god, I had to make them all.
What are your favorite cookbooks?
Someone (probably my mother!) gave me the Joy of Cooking at our wedding. And I've used that ever since. That and the Good Housekeeping book: the red and white-checked book. I've had both of those since I was married. I pretty much cooked out of those two cookbooks.
Thanks, Mom! You're the best! (And I love your cookies, too.)
What are your memories of family meals while growing up?
Related: Family History: How to Document Recipes That Aren't Written Down
(Image: Emma Christensen)