Chicken and Dumplings. Sweet Potato Pie. Double Peanut Butter Fudge. Chicken-Fried Venison. The women in my mother’s family—her mother, grandmother and aunts—were great Southern cooks, and my mother Eloise learned the best they had to teach her. She began in the Southern tradition too, but branched out considerably when her lifelong love for travel exposed her to a world of fabulous food. When she returned home, she’d recreate the dishes she enjoyed the most, record the particulars on index cards, then file them in her recipe box.
Over the years I’d mined those index cards for my favorites, copying them for my own collection. Many of these “recipes” played fast and loose with details, consisting only of a list of ingredients and maybe a terse final directive, like, “Serve over rice.” No measurements or proportions, no cooking times or temperatures. While typing up a recipe card, I’d have to press her for the specifics.
“But how much ice water do you need to make the pie crust?” I’d ask.
She’d respond with a breezy wave of her hand and a little laugh. “Oh, you know . . . just until the dough comes together.”
She was even less helpful with flour tortillas.
“Mother, for heaven’s sake! What on earth does ‘a knifeful of shortening’ mean?”
“Well, you just scoop some shortening out of the can with a knife blade . . .”
And so we’d hash out what her more abstruse recipes intended, pause for a sip of our champagne cocktails, and then I’d start copying another one.
I’ve had my mother’s recipe box for some years now, but mostly it’s been left untouched on a shelf. Last week, however, after unearthing it while unpacking from the move, I felt the urge to open it for the first time in a long while.
Mainly because I’ve yet to find my own recipe files.
The recipe I was looking for was Stuffed Peppers. I was making it from memory for dinner that night, and wanted to be sure I didn’t forget anything important. I was happy to see my recall was spot on.
But then curiosity impelled me to browse further, and I found this filed under “Dips”:
Dear . . . Lord . . . Festooning mashed-up sardines with pineapple leaves and sliced green olives? On purpose? You might wonder, in what universe would this little number be considered a feast for the senses? In the 1950s universe, that’s where. It calls for twelve 4 oz. cans of sardines. Twelve. My mother’s handwritten note on the card reads “make ½ recipe.” How about make none?
I did a cursory search under some other tabs: “Foreign Foods,” “Appetizers,” “Frozen Sweets,” “Italian.” My faith in my mother’s palate was restored when I found nothing else even close to this abomination. In fact I found a lot of delicious things I’d forgotten about, foods I plan to cook my way through as we settle into the forever home.
But I couldn’t shake the thought of that newspaper photo—the lopsided, unintentionally hilarious mound of oily, gussied up fishy glop. Not to mention the unappetizing pairing of two such incongruous words. “Sardine.” “Pineapple.” Ugh.
Then I remembered an incident many years ago that made the Sardine Pineapple seem a bit less anomalous.
Periodically my mother would make a huge pot of what she called “vegetable soup,” though it wasn’t what most people would think of by that name. She kept a big glass jar in the freezer, and whenever she had leftovers that we didn’t get around to eating—whether vegetables, meats, casseroles, whatever—instead of pitching them out, she popped them in that jar, right on top of whatever was already frozen beneath the new layer. When the jar filled up (however many weeks that took), she’d thaw out the contents and cook it in a stew pot for several hours, along with seasonings and the fresh ingredients needed to balance out the vegetable-meat ratio of that batch. The result was her version of vegetable soup. Though you might not believe it, it was always delicious, marvelously complex and flavorful. She taught me to follow the same frugal habit, and we were both proud of the fact that food never went to waste in our kitchens.
One of us was too proud. I was home on a visit, sitting at the kitchen table and devouring a bowl of my mother’s vegetable soup. I saw her stoop to retrieve something from the trash.
"What's that?" I asked.
"I added something different to the soup today." Then she wordlessly held out a small, empty can so I could read the label.
As my jaw dropped, she said, “Sbai didn’t like it, but I couldn’t let it go to waste!”
Well, Sbai, you spoiled Siamese, maybe you would’ve liked the Sardine Pineapple.
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