By the time I hit sixth grade in South Carolina, I was on my seventh school. This was due to my fathers job; he worked in plastics manufacturing when it was a brand new industry. Many people thought we were military because we were either moving or he was working in a city away from us. My sister and I both have memories of my father getting on an airplane on Monday morning only to return the following Friday. Our only contact with him during the week was by telephone. This must have been hard on my mother because she was from a tightly knit family with lots of relatives who lived nearby. She spent a lot of the first years of her marriage alone with two children. Mealtime and family stories kept us close; when dad was home, or away.
I remember the meals the most. When dad was home, she cooked big dinners straight out of Betty Crocker or Better Homes and Gardens. This was the traditional meat, two sides, bread, and of course, dessert. When he was out of town, we had food that was economical, nutritious, and easy. Don’t get me wrong, we were always well fed with most meals homemade; there were no frozen dinners at our house. Most frequently we had a dish called hamburger-sketties. This consisted of browned ground beef, spaghetti noodles, stewed tomatoes, and parsley “for color”. We also ate a lot of tuna fish mixed up with macaroni and cheese out of the box. The stories of that meal make my southern born and bred husband shudder. I was almost 20 years old before I found out that macaroni and cheese can be made from scratch. It never occurred to me that this was possible.
I loved it best when she fried chicken. She use a heavy skillet (not cast iron) with a matching lid, both encrusted with years of carbon build up from burnt on splatters too touch for steel wool. The inside was spotless and shiny, the long handle silky smooth to touch. She would fry legs for my sister and I, breasts for her and my father. It was always accompanied by corn or green beans, and mashed potatoes heaped high in a bowl with a square of butter slowly melting in to a small pool at the center. This pool was worth fighting for as a kid. Dinners were family style, passing from the right. I loved it when the potato bowl started at my elbow. That old frying pan sits in my kitchen cabinet right now, ready for chicken. My mother has bought me several new ones in an attempt to coerce me to get rid of it, but I refuse.
I also enjoyed listening to stories about my mother’s childhood. She grew up in Kansas City, and her grandparents were one of the founding families of the local church that they all later attended. They actually had a whole pew with their name on a small tag—this story has always made me feel a little anxious about sitting in the wrong place when visiting a new church. She used to tell me that her mother would wake up very early to get her pies started and meat course in the oven to slow bake all morning. Her mother would then wake her, they would both dress in Sunday best, and head off to early Mass at 6:30. After church, they would put on aprons and finish preparing for Sunday dinner. Her extended family of aunts, uncles and cousins would converge after late morning mass and they all sat down together at what is now known as lunchtime. However, this was a huge meal, guaranteed to last until late evening, maybe even bedtime if there was extra dessert. The family would stay for a few hours, always help with clean up, then disperse back to their own homes for another week. This routine was unvaried until my grandfather died when my mother was in her early teens.
Even now, I think about what that must have been like. This same type of Sunday event is frequently recorded in food blogs, articles, and books. I like to imagine how warm and surrounded by love everyone felt. Sunday dinners still exist for many families, but rarely is it an automatic, weekly expectation. Most of us have turned it into something that must be planned, another activity for the calendar; almost guaranteed to make us feel weary rather than restored. Alternately, it is confined to immediate family only due to the fact that so many of us no longer live near an extended family unit. This makes me a little sad.
Many of the foods from my memories and moms stories have shown up on my dinner table. However, my favorite meal from my mother is also my children’s favorite. It’s comfort food at the most basic level. It starts with bone-in chicken breasts, boiled with onion, celery, and carrots until tender. Once the chicken is tender, the meat is pulled from the bones, shredded, and returned to the stock. Added are a few cups of wide egg noodles, also cooked in the stock. This rich mixture is thicker than soup, but not a stew, and is served over a pile of hot mashed potatoes. It’s ideal for fall, and especially cold winter dinnertimes. I always make it when the air is bitingly crisp, and nightfall occurs before the dinner hour. I always think of my mom as I watch my family eat.