Remembering Mom Through Food

Last week I finally faced a day I have been dreading for decades - the day my mother left this world.

Mom's had a myriad of health difficulties she has faced over the past many years and it was probably 15 years ago when I really started to mourn her - while she was still here. She was 70 and there was a clear decline in her health. From then on, every time I saw her, I made sure I gave her hugs and told her I loved her. I made it a point to end conversations on a good note. I knew it could be any time that I might lose her. She made it all the way to age 85. And I'm so grateful to have had her as long as we did.

Mom in her younger days before I was born.

Her name was Kathryn May, but everyone called her Kathie. She was a beautiful, intelligent, creative woman and I'll remember so many things about her. As many mothers do, she often expressed her love through food. She was such a good cook. She made home cooked meals nightly when we were growing up - with the exception of Saturday night, which was our pizza night. She made extra effort to prepare our favorites. It was so comforting growing up to have dinner together as a family each night at the table that was lovingly prepared my mom.

I learned to make a few things from her, but there were some I have never tried to duplicate. I know they wouldn't measure up. One is her chicken and dumplings and the other is her salmon patties.

I'm sure there were times as kids that we tired of the same 7 or 8 or 9 meals that she'd make over and over again, but what I wouldn't give to have her hand me a plate of ham, potatoes and green beans right now. It was often a rotation of: chicken and dumplings, ham with potatoes and green beans, salmon patties, ground chuck patties that we'd use A-1 sauce on, meatloaf, pork roast, spaghetti with meat sauce, liver and onions, tacos. That was about it. There were a few others that would make their way in once in a while, like her amazing fried chicken.

We almost always had the same sides with certain entrees, too. If we had salmon patties, we were sure to have boiled parsley potatoes or macaroni and cheese and spinach with vinegar and sliced boiled eggs on top. If we were having meatloaf, there was a side of mashed potatoes and corn. Roast pork was usually accompanied by fried potatoes and candied carrots.

Mom wasn't a big baker - I don't remember her making cakes or cookies or brownies. However, she'd make homemade pies that were amazing. Her apple pies were often made with apples off the backyard tree. Sometimes she'd make rhubarb pie with rhubarb from the garden. She made wonderful zucchini bread. And nothing could beat her Irish Soda bread. It was THE BEST.

When we had summer barbecues she would make homemade potato salad and macaroni salad. I have never had better macaroni salad than hers. 

She described her cooking technique as "doctoring up" things - taking something from a box and adding ingredients to give it a homemade touch. One such thing she did this with was her stuffing - or dressing, as she called it. She started with a box of stove top, but after making adjustments it tasted like it was made from scratch. She'd add chicken broth, onion and diced celery - including the celery leaves, which made all the difference.

My husband always marveled at how she could look in the cabinet and whip up a meal with what she found.

Thanksgiving dinner was more about side dishes than the bird. She'd get up super early and put the turkey in and the hours that followed were spent in the kitchen where in the end we'd have dressing, mashed potatoes, gravy, sweet potatoes, broccoli with cheese, green bean casserole, a green vegetable salad, Waldorf salad, Hawaiian salad, biscuits, cornbread, cranberry sauce, deviled eggs - and my very favorite, Ream's egg noodles that were cooked in chicken broth and gravy with salt and pepper - her most often used seasonings. It still just isn't Thanksgiving without those noodles. Over the years each of the daughters or daughters-in-law were assigned a dish to bring. One sister-in-law usually made a jello mold, another made a cheesy cornbread. My sister often brought a favorite appetizer - water chestnuts wrapped in bacon and sprinkled with brown sugar. Over the years, my usual dish was corn casserole or macaroni and cheese - often both. And I still make those two things with every Thanksgiving meal.

She talked about foods that she ate growing up and things that her family liked and things that she made for my dad because his mother had made them for him when he was growing up. I remember her once being at my house and showing me how to make stewed tomatoes, something she said she learned to make from her brother-in-law. It's just a can of tomatoes with old bread, salt, butter and sugar added, but it tasted so good when she made it.

One thing I loved that my mom made was biscuits and gravy. When I was newly married I wanted to make some for breakfast and mom coached me over the phone. As I waited and waited for it to thicken, I got incredibly inpatient. It didn't seem to be working. I had a big pan of this soupy liquid. Mom directed me to add another cup of milk. I didn't understand how I could possibly add another cup of liquid when it hadn't thickened up. I ignored her instructions and didn't add that second cup of milk. And then it did start to thicken up - and without the extra liquid mom told me I needed, it became a big pancake rather than gravy. It was comical. And not wanting to hurt my feelings, my husband of just a couple months ate it with a fork and knife with not one complaint.

She did a lot of cooking in the same cast iron skillet she had for years.

I loved most of the food she made us. One that I really didn't like was navy bean soup. One that I liked then, but just can't stomach now is liver and onions.

A few things she made us often - depression-era foods - that I liked then were fried bologna sandwiches, canned corned beef sandwiches on mini rye bread and bread with butter and sugar on top - and sometimes a touch of cinnamon. It's been forever since I've eaten a slice of bread with butter and sugar and there's no way I'd eat canned meat anymore, but once in a great while, I get a taste for a fried bologna sandwich. So about once a year I'll buy a couple slices of bologna from the deli and fry it up until it balloons up and looks like a little sombrero. Then I'll poke it with a fork and flip it over. Then it goes on one slice of really soft, fresh white bread with a big squirt of yellow mustard. 

Mom used Crisco shortening in a lot of her recipes. I used it when I first got married, but it's been at least 25 years since I bought a can. She also saved the bacon grease in a glass jar to flavor other dishes later.

When we were in junior high Mom started working at a White Hen Pantry. She worked midnight shift so that she could be home when we got home from school and she'd sleep when we were in school. In the mornings she would come home with deli fixings to make us brown bag lunches for us to take to school with us. We loved when she would make us pita pockets - cutting a pita bread in half and stuffing it with lunchmeat, cheese and lettuce. And the best was when she added a chocolate covered OREO cookie to our lunch. We were definitely the envy of the other third-graders at the lunch table.

A favorite snack she prepared for us was a half-cantaloupe and after she scooped the seeds from the middle, she'd put in a scoop of vanilla ice milk.

When my second son was born, he was delivered via emergency c-section. The recovery was much tougher than it was with my first son. For the first few weeks, mom came over several days a week to help. Dad would drop her off on his way to work and pick her up in the late afternoon. She almost always made me scrambled eggs for breakfast and I still can't make them as creamy and fluffy as she did. 

There are foods she liked that make me think of her: 
Coffee (even though I don't drink it myself)
Chicken Kiev 
Tin Roof and Rocky Road Ice Cream
Kentucky Fried Chicken
Reese's Peanut Butter Cups
The corner pieces of a cheese, sausage, mushroom and green pepper pizza
Scrambled eggs
Cinnamon raisin toast
Butter beans
Lima beans
Guava juice
Orange candy slices
Orange circus peanuts

Some of my very favorite things she made were her meatloaf, her chicken and dumplings and her potato soup (a simple Julia Child-style recipe, not a thick, creamy soup). I make her meatloaf and potato soup often and it's pretty close to how she made it. But I haven't tasted her chicken and dumplings in many years and I'm scared to try and replicate it - I'm afraid it may be another gravy fiasco.

Not only do I have these food-related memories in my mind of my mom, I'm lucky to have a couple tablecloths that she gave me as gifts that I use often and always think of her. I also happen to have a set of dishes that we used as I was growing up. I don't use them on a daily basis, as we did for several years with mom, but I pull them out from time to time. I love the pretty floral design and I think of her every time I eat a meal off of them. 

I'm not quite the cook my mom was. There are a few things I make that my kids have come to enjoy. And I always love cooking them their favorites. Just like mom did for us.

A meal that I made at home with a tablecloth underneath given to me by my mom.

Mom's meatloaf is a simple recipe I made often. 

A bowl of potato soup from Mom's recipe with the addition of some cheese and bacon bits on top.

The day after mom passed away, I picked up a catered meal from Theatre at the Center
and we ate it on Mom's dishes.

A bowl of chicken gnocchi soup in one of Mom's bowls.



  1. I remember aunt Kathys wonderful food and her always having ice tea but most of all the laughter while she she was in the kitchen sharing her love with you all.


Post a Comment