Many of us have fond memories of the wonderful foods and tastes we grew up with – and I’d guess almost unanimously, we say now we didn’t realize how good that food was back when we took it for granted daily – Well, my blogging friends, I’m going to throw my “skeptic” perspective in here and suggest that there are other factors at work in our fond memories. And don’t be so quick to write my theories off – I’ve given this a good deal of thought, as have others who agree. I’m betting that as human animals, we are predisposed to have warm, fuzzy feelings about our carefree and joyous childhood, and perhaps even more, about the positive role and influence our mothers played in our growth and maturation – and all those emotions come rushing back front and center in our memories of the foods and tastes of our childhood.
My mother was not a great cook, but she was in the classic sense, a stay-at-home housewife, and therefore she was the boss of the kitchen – but she did not enter the kitchen with joy in her heart. I remember well that my early interest in food was driven in part by the fact that I often had the thought that what I was tasting and eating in her kitchen was not the best of the class, and I knew that if I was to experience the fine foods of the world, I was going to have to learn how to cook.
However, my mother was probably a better than average cook of the time (post WWII). There were some dishes that she did well: meatloaf; liver with bacon and onions; lima bean soup made with a big ham bone; stuffed cabbage and peppers; and she did roast chicken very well – but given my father’s rather narrow range of favorite foods, my mother’s repertoire of dinner dishes was quite limited – we ate ham and baked potatoes a lot!
And in retrospect, my mother had some good food attitudes – she always cooked with milk and butter, and would never have American cheese, which she called imitation cheese, in the house. She did not use canned soups much, tending to make them from scratch instead. And it was unheard of in our house to have eggs without bacon, ham, or sausage.
But in truth, the list of what my mother did poorly, or not at all, was also significant – she overcooked practically every vegetable she ever cooked, as did most home cooks of the day! She never made spaghetti, because she simply didn’t understand Italian tomato sauces – actually, Italian foods were just becoming popular, and were mostly restaurant fare. And although she was a decent baker, it was a rare treat when we had homemade bread, cake, or pie.
All of us can probably recall an occasion as we were growing up, when we realized that something that we thought was common to everyone, was actually considered a little weird to the rest of the world. I’ve had several of these realizations over the years, and strangely, they center around eggs. I doubt this fact has anything to do with me growing up on a chicken farm, during which time I hated eggs, namely the slimy little part of the white that’s always the last to firm up when cooking. However, it took eating breakfast in the college dining hall for me to realize that the rest of the world ate syrup on their French Toast, while I alone thought catsup was the proper accompaniment – I don’t think my roommates ever tired of the questionable humor in this – and I still don’t understand why.
But it was another breakfast egg dish that I would learn really set my family apart from the mainstream – milk poached eggs. In American food culture, poached eggs are pretty low on the popularity list – but a milk poached egg is a virtual rarity! And -as I would learn- a milk poached egg done my mother’s way – was arguably unique and distinct to our family alone! At least I’ve never found any evidence of it on the net.
Basically, my mother would heat a small skillet and put a Tbs of butter in it when hot – when the foam died, she’d drop two eggs in there, sprinkle with salt and pepper and almost immediately pour about 1/6th cup of milk in too – then she’d cover the pan and let the milk boil up and steam for the better part of a minute or two. Only then would she lift the cover to check things (you want the whites completely cooked, but the yolk still runny but cloudy on top). When done properly, she’d move the eggs to a plate over a slice of toast, and the hot milk would go over all, to be soaked up by the dry toast. This is an absolutely delightful way to enjoy your morning eggs, and in fact infinitely easier than making a classic poached egg.
I have no idea where this method of making eggs originated, but I’m sure whomever came up with the idea – and I’m quite willing to credit my mother with it – did so in an effort to save milk – normally, milk poached eggs are cooked exactly the same as water poached eggs, thereby creating quite a waste of milk!. But the ease of preparation and the by-product of a “sauce” here is shear genius, in my estimation, and sets this dish apart from all other everyday poached egg dishes. (No, Brennan’s Eggs Sardou is not “everyday”)
Did my mother make these eggs better than I can today? Probably not – but damn, I’ve made these things now thousands of times, and there ain’t no secrets here! But this was her dish, and her unique gift to us and the world, rest her soul – Now, if she had only given me that recipe for Lima Bean Soup!