What the Cat Wouldn’t Eat

Posted by:
Susan Rooke
March 16, 2017

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.

Cat food.

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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11 comments on “What the Cat Wouldn’t Eat”

  1. This is hilarious and fascinating. I am intrigued with the leftover "vegetable" soup concept and cringing over the sardine pineapple....ew...the photo looks like it's from a science fiction story....Aliens have landed..."take us to your leader...we come in peace, we come bearing sardine pineapple"

  2. Sardine Pineapple Glop - A culinary and literary catastrophe of the worst kind. If you want to add to your collection of disasters, I think I can dig up my used once, and once only, recipe for fish stew in a crock pot. Need I say more? Please pass the breath mints and a fresh pad of paper. btw Are your new digs meeting your expectations?

    1. John, that one sounds priceless! If you'd like to write it up sometime as my guest blogger I would love to have it! And yes, the digs are proving satisfactory, thank you. We are slowly progressing on getting unpacked, and loving the extra space. It feels miraculous to be here!

  3. Hello Susan,
    Frilly sardine pineapple upside down jell- cake seems not only creative but highly adventurous. Chines, Japanese and Thais would gobble it in no time. Your dear mother must be an experimental cook.

  4. Re sardines and pineapple. You just don't know until you try it. My friend, the late Carlos Pineda, made Capirotada, a strange mix of raisins, meat and other ingredients you'd swear would never work but ended up very palatable.

  5. Bet my cat Una, a little bit tortoise shell kitty, would have gone through it like Attilla the Gun through a steak.

    1. I do enjoy the combo of fruits and savories, such as meats. Cranberry sauce with pork roast, for instance, and the other night I made for the umpteenth time a recipe I came up with decades ago: Pork Chops with Apricot Sauce. (Yum!) And I love sardines! My mother used to make Mexico City-style pozole that she served with side items that included sardines, and it was fabulous--one of my favorites. But there's just something so gloppy and sad/unintentionally funny about that newspaper photo, Ralph. I couldn't let it go by. 😉

      Una sounds adorable, and she's more than welcome to it!

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