Welcome to the introduction to my proposed book “GOOF: Meals & Memories From a Well-Fed Life” which is about food & family & friends, with recipes and pictures along the way. It’s intended to be part memoir and part cookery book, and I hope turns out on paper as brilliantly as it’s going in my mind. There are no recipes attached to this intro, yet, but I am culling recipes from my mother’s files and my kitchen diaries, so there will be some in the next posting. Do let me know what you think!
I can’t think that there are many kids in the world whose mother’s favourite recipe got its own newspaper story, but that’s what happened to Goof.
My mother was running the kitchen at the YWCA in Kitchener when a story about the Y’s kitchen and catering turned into a saga about this casserole dish, infamous in our house for being a delicious way to stretch a pound of ground beef, a tin of tomatoes, a whomping bowl of noodles, and a lot bits of leftovers into a casserole the kids would eat happily.
Stretching ingredients was key to life in our household, what with having six kids you could count on having for supper every night, never mind friends who might have been invited to stay, usually without checking with Mum first. Still, she never said no, so many nights one side or other of the table would see kids scooting their bums down the bench to fit in one more child.
The best way to stretch ingredients, as any frugal cook knows, is to make a casserole. As most mothers will tell you, however, casseroles aren’t always a hit with kids. Too many things you don’t like can be hidden in there, plus the word “casserole” is kind of boring when you’re eight years old. So such casseroles as we ate all had great names, to make them more fun, and thus taste better (never discount the tastiness of fun in any recipe). Thus, a simple hamburger casserole became “Goof” and a hard-cooked eggs in cream sauce dish became “Golden Rod” while baked spaghetti with veggies (both leftovers) became “Noodle Pie”.
My brothers and sister don’t remember quite as clearly as I do the sameness of our meals when we were really little, but until I was into my teens, there were some dishes that were made again and again and again, and there was very little experimentation with choices of ingredients. Part of this, I know, was because my mother refused to feed us individually. What she made was what we ate, or we didn’t eat. If there was something in a dish you didn’t like, pick it out if you had to, try it once for sure, and then just eat the rest of it without complaining.
So to avoid listening to too much complaining (there was always some – I hated mushrooms as a kid, David couldn’t stand peas, and so forth), she would stick to the tried and true meals she knew we would swallow.
More than this, however, was our father. He didn’t like new things to eat any more than we did. Introducing him to new foods, new cooking methods, was an adventure our parents took together as we got older, they entertained more, and they trusted themselves to experiment more in the kitchen.
I say “they experimented in the kitchen”, although it was mostly Joy who learned to cook first, often from recipes Ross would find in a magazine or book. As it turned out later still in life, Ross became a pretty good hands-on cook himself, but for many years it was mostly Joy in the kitchen. Along, of course, with her own gang of prep cooks and dish pigs.
We are often asked, the six of us, when and where we learned how to do so much in the kitchen, and the answer is always it started with peeling carrots. Or potatoes. Or, at an even more basic level, learning how to cook started with doing dishes. Lord, but we washed a lot of pots and pans, mixing bowls and cooking utensils, and under very strict scrutiny, with constant reminders that the outside of a bowl should also be considered dirty so wash it! From washing pots to peeling potatoes was a huge step with even more scrutiny. “I’d actually like to have some potato left to serve the guests! Scrape them, don’t gouge them.”
My favourite line about learning to cook is that we all got started in our culinary lessons as soon as we were tall enough to see the top of the stove, but in reality learning how to cook, really cook, happened when we were ready to use a knife. Of the six of us, although most of us have worked in restaurants and kitchens at one time or another, only Greg went on to make a full-time career of cooking; he’s the one who went to George Brown and did his apprenticeship and has his papers to prove that he’s a chef. But if he doesn’t have his papers or toque handy to show you, just ask him to chop an onion. Such great knife skills! As for me, I’m a little faster and a little more skilled now than as a child learning, but nothing like Greg.
I can still remember being guided in making carrot coins, learning why having them all the same width was better, seeing the difference in interesting appearance between a straight-on cut and an angled one, and then eventually the joy of carrot sticks both thin and thick. And from cutting carrots, I learned how to cook them, glaze them, season them. Surely my parents threw dinner parties without carrots, but in my mind it doesn’t seem so.
But there was much more carrot coins to having people over for dinner. There was The Table to be set. So that too became a series of lessons, in how to make a table look gorgeous and welcoming at the same time. This was also how I learned about salad forks and dessert spoons, about wine glasses and water glasses, about centrepieces that encourage the flow of conversation, not block it.
Ross and Joy hated having meals served from the kitchen. They wanted the bounty on the table, with the bowls of veg and potatoes filled to brim, the platter of meat or chicken nearly overflowing, a reminder to their guests (and to their family, because our meals were served in the same fashion, from bowls and platters on the table) that what was here, hot and delicious, was meant to be share and savoured as a happy, convivial group.
Dinner plates were in a pile at Ross’s end of the table, along with the meat. At the family table, the first person served (unless there was a guest) was Max, the youngest, and then Michael and so on up the line to me. The plates went from Ross to Joy, who would in turn serve the two veg and potatoes (or sometimes rice, sometimes noodles). You always had to tell her when to stop serving one spoon before you meant it. At the end, Ross would carve Mum’s portion and send his empty plate down the line, along with her serving of meat, down to her. His plate, now filled with veg, would come up the other side of the table, and he would stop nibbling at the meat to serve himself.
Oh, and let’s not forget the condiments. Pickled beets, mustard relish, governor’s sauce (or governor’s lumps, Ross would say), chili sauce, brown sauce, horseradish, pickles both dill and sweet. Joy was big on condiments, and they all were passed around at most suppers with, you should pardon the expression, great relish.
And of course salad. Not at every meal, and sometimes not leafy greens. My mother’s favourite salad was spinach with thinly sliced onions and crispy bacon bits (the real stuff, not out of a jar!) and dressed with a home-made sour cream dressing that is peculiar, I think, to Waterloo County. Actually, when we were little, the only dressings on salads we had were home-made. Just simple oil and apple cider vinegar (white was fine, but apple cider had a little more flavour) and brown sugar and a pinch of salt. No pepper because of me; that could be added at table. To this day, I cannot abide the taste of pepper on vegetables. I used to hate it on everything but as my own cooking, and tasting, skills grew I learned to appreciate the depth of flavour pepper could offer. Just not to veggies, thank you.
After I left home, my mother got back into the habit of adding pepper to the vegetable dishes, and so on a visit home a bowl of glazed carrots (!) came to the table, seasoned with fresh ground black pepper. I didn’t say a word about it, just accepted the plate heaped with a wonderful meal, including those peppered carrots. And after a bite of everything else, I put a carrot stick on my fork and picked up my knife to try to scrape the pepper off the carrot. Quietly, not making a fuss about it. Except that I was seated to my father’s right, and he saw what I was doing.
Ross sighed and put down his own knife and fork, told me to do the same and give him my plate. He got up from the table and went into the kitchen and started banging around in the cupboards. Joy asked him what on earth he was doing. “The girl doesn’t eat pepper. I’m not going to watch her scrape off every carrot on her plate, so I’m rinsing and re-heating them.” Which he did. Which, in turn, had everyone at the table laughing. But I loved my carrots!
I remember a lot of laughter at the table when we were children, and more still as we’ve grown up and gathered too infrequently for extended family meals. But I also remember learning table manners and how to carry on a conversation. And I remember learning not to be a soprano. My sister, Andrea, and I were always being told to lower the tone of our voices, to modulate, to not screech like a soprano. At some point I know I asked Joy (who was a gifted, classically trained singer) why we shouldn’t be sopranos. The way I have always told this story is that because, Joy said, in opera the alto tries to get the man and then dies for trying, but the soprano succeeds in getting the man and then dies for succeeding. I think my mother’s point was to live long enough to enjoy the rewards, with a well modulated voice.