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How to kill the beast and other lessons Mom taught me

May, 2010

Mom died a couple of years ago, but she still leans over my shoulder in the kitchen. This is what I hear her say:

Recipes are your heritage

The cookbooks she kept and passed on were ones she was given when she first married. The Connecticut Cookbook, Serve it Buffet, The General Foods Kitchens Cookbook and the post-Second World War Modern Encyclopedia of Cooking, which has a chapter on game, including recipes for muskrat and possum.

Mom was as likely to cook a possum as climb into a boxcar. She was elegant, far more so than I. But looking through these cookbooks, published before I was born, brings me to an era when cooking was transformed. You might not need to cook a possum, but someone should be able to. By the time she acquired the General Foods Kitchens Cookbook in the late 1950s, cooking was less a product of what you might find roaming through the yard than a testament to the scientific method. These recipes were “designed to help you in the hundreds of situations that call for planning, preparing and serving of food.” Experts were there, direct from General Foods and sandwiched between the covers, giving advice for planning a family meal, dealing with a maid and creating a “neighbourhood progressive dinner for the 8-to-12s.” Raw vegetable sticks, yes; muskrat, no.

Plan ahead

Mom’s dinner parties were orchestrated to take diners through cocktails, appetizers, main courses, desserts, coffee and cigarettes. Each dish had a recipe card and the meal was detailed in a diary. Guests were never served the same meal twice.

Although Mom cooked with military precision, my youthful rebellion lingers. I pride myself on pulling meals off without a menu, usually without a recipe. Often, I will improvise a sauce as I am cooking. A roux, some stock, drippings from the pan, a little wine and a final dab of butter. She taught me what went into a dish, but left me free to improvise.

Kill the beast

No one could make a lobster like my mother. This was her New England heritage. The lobster had to be live and killed with a knife thrust through the carapace. Boiling was for wusses. The lobster was split down the middle, the cavity stuffed and buttered and the whole lobster broiled in the oven. I salivate even as I write this.

One day, when she was older and needed a walker, she said she was in the mood for lobster. She couldn’t find a fish monger who would do as she directed, so she did the deed in her kitchen herself. She teetered over to the counter, pushed the walker aside, picked up a chef’s knife and plunged it, quickly killing two lobsters. Then she went back to the walker and shuffled from the kitchen, saying: “You can cook them.”

There’s always room for dessert and a drink

Mom made great cookies. There were dollar-sized brownies, lacey Florentines and biscuits packed with butter. Toward the end of her life, I was surprised to see that, although she found it hard to move around, there was always a tin of biscuits ready. She must have made them in batches when she had the energy so there would always be something to bring over or to serve if guests dropped in. They tasted great with a brandy or the sweet dessert wine she kept on hand.

Ice wine from Ontario was one of her favourites. I can’t recall a dish that didn't have a requisite libation – wine and cheese, beer and hotdogs, Scotch and cheese straws, port and cigars. There was never a question of what was healthy or what food should be avoided. Meals were social occasions and if they could start with caviar and end with chocolate, well what’s wrong with that?

From Mom’s recipe cards:

Walnut Brandy cookies

In a food processor, chop 1 cup of walnuts for 6 to 8 seconds. Empty the bowl and blend a cup of butter (not margarine, Mom notes), a cup of icing sugar and a teaspoon of vanilla.

Then add the nuts, ¼ teaspoon of salt, 4 tablespoons of brandy and 2 cups of flour (Mom would have used all purpose). Mix until it forms a ball. Preheat the oven to 325F and chill the dough in a freezer for 20 minutes.

Form the dough into 1-inch balls and place them 2 inches apart on a cookie sheet. Bake for 20 minutes or until golden. 5 dozen, freezes well.



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