Today is my mother’s birthday. If Midge Larkworthy were alive, she’d be 88 today. I wrote a piece about her gastronomic love in the second issue of Cherry Bombe magazine. It was called “The Missing Ingredient.” The title alone (which I didn’t write) makes me cry. Still, thought I’d share it.
Growing up in a modest suburban household where coupons were clipped and a vacation meant a week upstate at grandma’s, certain luxuries were not part of my childhood. We didn’t belong to a country club, we had one car and it was American and we never went out to dinner. The notion of Sunday nights at Royal Hunan Palace or giving mom the night off at the Greek diner was an exotic luxury other families indulged in.
Of course, I envied my friends’ early mastering of chopsticks and scrapbook inclusions of fortune cookie strips, but a home-cooked Midge Larkworthy meal was anything but a disappointing consolation prize. Once a week, Mom wrote out the schedule of nightly menus on a yellow memo pad, mingling family favorites with a few loftier attempts borrowed from the New York Times Cookbook: “Coq au Vin, Tajine, Boeuf Grenadine, Hamburgs, Fried Chicken, Salisbury Steak.”
While other moms in the neighborhood stirred Hamburger Helper into frying pans of chopped chuck or poured jars of Buittoni marinara sauce over boiled pasta, a typical day in our kitchen saw Yellow Ware bowls brimming with homemade bread dough and cubes of tenderloin soaking in a sherry-marinaded Pyrex dish. Mom experimented with ingredients we’d never heard of, like curry, or pork bellies and she poured wine into her sauces. I often came home from school greeted by wafts of baking bread cooling on racks on the butcher block or the simmering mystery of a wine and rosemary roux reducing away in a cast-iron skillet.
Of course, every kid probably thinks her mother is the best cook, and I could only judge what I knew. And I knew I didn’t like to eat at my friends’ houses because their moms added Lipton’s Onion Soup mix into their hamburgers or slapped two slabs of bologna and Gulden’s Mustard or—worse yet–Miracle Whip between two pieces of Wonder Bread. These flavors were unfamiliar and cold, so I rejected them, always a quick excuse at the ready for not being able to stay for dinner.
With the exception of two of her dishes–tuna spaghetti and salmon patties (I blame my lifelong hatred of seafood on them)–I happily cleaned my plate. Mom’s dishes were fresh-from-the-oven warm, exploding with comforting flavors, like cinnamon, garlic, thyme. Like the flannel sheets she sewed that hugged my bed or the crackling fire she started every evening in anticipation of Dad’s arrival from work, Mom’s meals were cozy. Mom’s meals made me feel safe.
They kept the bad news from me, for the most part. Kate and Pete were told that the cancer had returned, but all four of them decided to hold off on telling the youngest child until Mom went into the hospital for the last time.
“I’m afraid I’ve got bad news for you, kiddo,” Dad said when I greeted him in the driveway one night in early June.
That safe feeling was ending.
In her final days, when the kitchen housed no lively aromas, I tried to revive it (and her) by opening her recipe box. It was not a smooth passing of the torch. Impatience and a general talent for cursory glances at instructions prevented me from succeeding at that Boeuf Grenadine. An attempt at her French fries resulted in a small contained fire in the kitchen.
In the first few years after her passing, Dad and I would attempt one of her hits when I came home on college breaks. We’d roll up our sleeves, lay all the ingredients out and trudge through her directions of City Chicken Legs (which didn’t contain chicken) or Porcupines (which weren’t made from pork). Ours never came out tasting as good as hers, and each disappointment lessened the urge to try again. Thinking back on it, re-creating a Midge meal was probably too painful for him. To conjure up the familiar aroma of a signature dish without also getting its author in the deal was an unfair tease. A part of her resurfaced, but we didn’t really have her. There was no high-pitched laughter (“Oh, Bill! You’re going to burn the sauce! It says simmer!“), no turtleneck sweater and plaid pants, no warm, nuzzly hint of Norell and no gentle guidance to set us back on course with the marinade.
25 years later, we lost Dad. My siblings and I made the trek out to the house and set about preparing it for the realtor. We each took our designated heirlooms–Pete got Grandpa Jasper’s rocking chair, Kate took Mom’s portrait off the bedroom wall, I got the monogrammed silver. Tucked away in an upper cupboard above the broom closet, I found the recipe box. Inside were all the magic index cards: Nana’s goulash, City Chicken Legs, honeybuns, marble cake, snowball cookies. When I got back to my apartment, I pulled out my own yellow memo pad, ready to pick up the grocery list she had stopped making so long ago. Upon closer look at the ingredients, my pen froze: Crisco, Accent, Wesson, My-T-Fine Tapioca, Pennsylvania Dutch Noodles. It was one long, gastronomic anachronism. A gastronachronism.
At first, reading all these words I hadn’t seen for 25 years made me laugh. This was quickly followed by a paranoid concern for the health of my siblings and me. How much trans fats and processed crap had we ingested during our formative years???
The (sad?) truth is that most of these foods still exist; they just don’t exist in my pantry. Moreover, my then-recent marriage to a man of staunch salubrious ways had resulted in a kitchen where the only sugar was raw, the tomato sauce was from scratch and butter had been replaced with olive oil. We weren’t about to let Mrs. Dash or Country Crock or Parkay into our home.
So we set about replacing each relic with a healthier alternative. Chopped garlic stepped in for Accent, brown rice replaced Minute Rice and olive oil replaced just about everything else. Meanwhile, we’ve gathered and borrowed recipes that have become our own lineup of family hits: butternut squash lasagna, kale and apple salad, vegetable Napoleons, balsamic-roasted strawberries. When we feed our friends and family, Midge still lingers–in the patchwork potholders she made 40 years ago, and the linen tablecloths I took from her cabinets, and the monogrammed silver. But I don’t envision 1970’s Mom; I see her as if she were still with us today. Frail at nearly 85, but sturdy, she’d be cozied up on our sofa, perhaps knitting a sweater for our daughter. Looking over, she’d ask my husband to tell her once again how much that syrupy aged balsamic vinegar he used in his salad dressing cost.
“Have you tried just thickening regular vinegar with Knox?” she might ask.
“Oh, Midge,” he’d laugh, shaking his head.
Hearing my husband call my mother “Midge”. For that, I would eat an entire salmon patty.
Mom’s Boeuf Grenadine
- 2 lbs Sirloin, cut in 1-inch cubes
- 1/2 C vegetable (or olive) oil
- 1/4 C dry sherry
- 1 T lemon juice
- 1/4 t salt
- 1/4 t pepper
- 1/4 t MSG (or 1-2 garlic cloves, chopped)
- 1/4 t crumbled oregano (or 1/4 t chopped fresh oregano leaves)
- 1/4 t paprika
- 1/4 t garlic powder (or one more garlic clove)
- 1/4 t onion powder (or not)
- 1/2 lb small mushrooms, trimmed
- 1 medium green pepper, cut in 1/2″ squares
- 3 T butter or margarine (or just a bit more of that olive oil)
- 2 envelopes instant beef broth (fine…)
- 1 1/2 C water
- 1 C dry red wine
- 2 T corn starch (or flour)
- 2 C Minute rice (or brown)
Place meat in single layer in glass or pottery dish.
Combine oil, sherry, lemon juice, salt, pepper, MSG, paprika, oregano and garlic and onion powders in a 1-cup measure (measuring cup???); pour over meat. Let stand, turning pieces several times, at least two hours to season. Drain marinade from meat (Do not pat dry!). Saute meat quickly, turning pieces several times, until done as you like beef. Remove all meat frompan.
While meat cooks, saute mushrooms and green pepper in butter in a second large frying pan. Keep warm. Stir beef broth, water and wine into meat drippings in pan; heat to boiling. Blend corn starch and a little water to a paste in a cup; stir into boiling liquid. Stir constantly, until sauce thickens and boils three minutes. Stir in meat and vegetable mixture; heat just until bubbly. Serve over cooked rice and garnish with cherry tomatoes, if desired.
Jane and Bertrand’s Butternut Squash Lasagna (borrowed and tweaked from Martha Stewart)
- 3 1/2 lbs butternut squash, peeled, seeded, cut into 1-inch pieces
- 1 medium onion, carmelized in olive oil
- Extra-virgin olive oil
- sea salt
- 1 lb whole-milk ricotta cheese
- 1/2 heavy cream
- 2 large egg yolks
- 1/2 lb buffalo mozzarella, grated
- Freshly grated nutmeg
- 1/2 C loosely packed sage leaves, coarsely chopped
- 1 1/4 C low-sodium vegetable stock
- wide, flat lasagna noodles, preferably fresh
- Fresh parmesan cheese
Preheat oven to 425. Toss squash with 2 T olive oil and a sprinkling of sea salt on baking sheet. Bake until light and gold and tender, about 25-30 minutes. Let cool. Reduce oven temp to 375.
In large bowl, mix ricotta, cream, yolks, mozzarella and a pinch of nutmeg and cinnamon. Season with salt.
Melt butter in small saute pan, heat 1 T olive oil. When hot, toss sage leaves in and cook until crispy at edges, about 4-5 minutes.Place squash in medium bowl and mash about half of it with back of wooden spoon, leaving the rest in whole pieces. Mix in caramelized onion, sage, then stir in stock. Season with sea salt.
Spread thin layer of ricotta mixture over 9-cup baking dish. Place layer of noodles over, followed by layer of squash mixture. Repeat once or twice more and end with ricotta layer. Sprinkle parmesan on top, then place in oven and let cook for 30-35 minutes until cheese is golden and bubbling.
Let stand 15 minutes before slicing and serving.