The only downside of my mother’s working was that it put a little pressure on her with regard to running the home and particularly with regard to dinner, which frankly was not her strong suit anyway. My mother always ran late and was dangerously forgetful into the bargain. You soon learned to stand aside about ten to six every evening, for it was then that she would fly in the back door, throw something in the oven, and disappear into some other quarter of the house to embark on the thousand other household tasks that greeted her each evening. In consequence she nearly always forgot about dinner until a point slightly beyond way too late. As a rule you knew it was time to eat when you could hear baked potatoes exploding in the oven.
We didn’t call it the kitchen in our house. We called it the Burns Unit.
“It’s a bit burned,” my mother would say apologetically at every meal, presenting you with a piece of meat that looked like something — a much-loved pet perhaps — salvaged from a tragic house fire. “But I think I scraped off most of the burned part,” she would add, overlooking that this included every bit of it that had once been flesh.
Happily, all this suited my father. His palate only responded to two tastes — burnt and ice cream — so everything suited him so long as it was sufficiently dark and not too startlingly flavorful. Theirs truly was a marriage made in heaven for no one could burn food like my mother or eat it like my dad.
As part of her job, my mother bought stacks of housekeeping magazines — House Beautiful, House and Garden, Better Homes and Gardens — and I read these with a curious avidity, partly because they were always lying around and in our house all idle moments were spent reading something, and partly because they depicted lives so absorbingly at variance with our own. The housewives in my mother’s magazines were so collected, so organized, so calmly on top of things, and their food was perfect — their lives were perfect. They dressed up to take their food out of the oven! There were no black circles on the ceiling above their stoves, no mutating goo climbing over the sides of their forgotten saucepans. Children didn’t have to be ordered to stand back every time they opened their oven doors. And their foods — baked Alaska, lobster Newburg, chicken cacciatore — why, these were dishes we didn’t even dream of, much less encounter, in Iowa.
Like most people in Iowa in the 1950s, we were more cautious eaters in our house.* On the rare occasions when we were presented with food with which we were not comfortable or familiar — on planes or trains or when invited to a meal cooked by someone who was not herself from Iowa — we tended to tilt it up carefully with a knife and examine it from every angle as if it determining whether it might need to be defused. Once on a trip to San Francisco my father was taken by friends to a Chinese restaurant and he described it to us afterwards in the somber tones of someone recounting a near-death experience.
“And they eat it with sticks, you know,” he added knowledgeably.
“Goodness!” said my mother.
“I would rather have gas gangrene than go through that again,” my father added grimly.
In our house we didn’t eat:
• pasta, rice, cream cheese, sour cream, garlic, mayonnaise, onions, corned beef, pastrami, salami, or foreign food of any type, except French toast;
• bread that wasn’t white and at least 65 percent air;
• spices other than salt, pepper and maple syrup;
• fish that was any shape other than rectangular and not coated in bright orange breadcrumbs, and then only on Fridays and only when my mother remembered it was Friday, which in fact was not often;
• seafood of any type but especially seafood that looked like large insects;
• soups not blessed by Campbell’s and only a very few of those;
• anything with dubious regional names like “pone,” or “gumbo” or foods that had at any time been an esteemed staple of slaves or peasants.
All other foods of all types — curries, enchiladas, tofu, bagels, sushi, couscous, yogurt, kale, rocket, Parma ham, any cheese that was not a vivid bright yellow and shiny enough to see your reflection in — had either not yet been invented or was yet unknown to us. We really were radiantly unsophisticated. I remember being surprised to learn at quite an advanced age that a shrimp cocktail was not, as I had always imagined, a pre-dinner alcoholic drink with a shrimp in it.
All our meals consisted of leftovers. My mother had a seemingly inexhaustible supply of foods that had already been to the table, sometimes many times. Apart from a few perishable dairy products, everything in the fridge was older than I was, sometimes by many years. (Her oldest food possession of all, it more or less goes without saying, was a fruitcake that was kept in a metal tin and dated from the colonial period.) I can only assume that my mother did all of her cooking in the 1940s so that she could spend the rest of her life surprising herself with what she could find under cover at the back of the fridge. I never knew her to reject a food. The rule of thumb seemed to be that if you opened the lid and the stuff inside didn’t make you actually recoil and take at least one staggered step backwards, it was deemed OK to eat.
Both of my parents had grown up in the Great Depression and neither of them ever threw anything away if they could possibly avoid it. My mother routinely washed and dried paper plates, and smoothed out for reuse spare aluminum foil. If you left a pea on your plate, it became part of future meal. All our sugar came in little packets spirited out of restaurants in deep coat pockets, as did our jams, jellies, crackers (oyster and saltine), tartar sauces, some of our ketchup and butter, all of our napkins, and a very occasional ashtray; anything that came with a restaurant table really. One of the happiest moments in my parents’ life was when maple syrup started to be served in small disposable packets and they could add those to the household hoard.
*In fact like most other people in America. It is perhaps worth noting that the leading American food writer of the age, Duncan Hines, author of the hugely successful Adventures in Eating, declared with pride that he never ate food with French names if he could possibly help it. Hines’s other boast was that he did not venture out of America until he was seventy years old, when he made a trip to Europe. He disliked nearly everything he found there, especially the food.