It was her kitchen, designed specifically for one person—long and narrow like a hallway, impossible to pass another without turning sideways. It was her exclusive domain, and she decorated it in blues and greens (her favorite colors)—pale blue walls, a spotless white floor (no one dared wear shoes in the kitchen for fear of leaving ugly black scuff marks), blue and green floral valance over a large window looking into her lush gardens, nosegays in jade or turquoise vases on the windowsill, blue and green ceramic bowls and melamine dish set, and one of the first dishwashers on the block. She reigned supreme in her kitchen, and any offers to help were met with not now or go play or clear the table (of course, we had to put the dishes on the counter using the pass-through). I guess I should be grateful—while my friends were expected to help with meals, wash dishes, and take out the trash, I was chore-free my entire childhood, free to wander the neighborhood, watch hours of TV or read in my room. And I am grateful, because often I sat at the counter, watching her work through the pass-through, and I learned without realizing at the time how much of her household and culinary skills would shape my own life.
Memories of Mom’s cooking range from preserving home-grown produce to making healthy meals on a shoestring. Because she worked, she only cooked dinner (we were on our own for breakfast—cold cereal (never sweetened) and toast (always whole wheat) and lunches or snacks, most often PBJ’s (natural crunchy peanut butter you had to stir and homemade plum jam). Week nights she’d cook mainly casseroles—tuna noodle sprinkled with crushed potato chips, meatballs and rice, chicken wings in mushroom soup over pasta. Saturday nights were always hamburgers (so I don’t have to think about it) and Sundays a meatloaf, pork chops or roast. Salad with homemade dressing (none of that bottled crap) was served with every meal, eaten as a final course as she learned from her French sister-in-law. Dessert, if you cleaned your plate (because there are starving kids in China), was a scoop of Napolean ice cream, chocolate chip mint or rainbow sherbet. Cakes, pies and cookies (all homemade, of course) were served only for special occasions.
Mom had a large vegetable and fruit garden, and in the summer and fall she’d work hours in the kitchen preserving cinnamon-spiced applesauce or raspberry currant jelly that shimmered like rubies, tarragon vinegar that scented the entire house or peach brandy she’d store in crystal decanters. Her pies were unrivaled—wild blackberry (my dad’s favorite), strawberry rhubarb and tin roof, a holiday favorite. For potlucks she made spicy potato salad with caraway, fruit cocktail cake with whipped cream and her signature romaine, mandarin and red onion salad with poppy seed dressing. Thanksgiving she’d spend days preparing the entire meal—cranberry orange sauce, pumpkin chiffon pie, sweet and sour Brussel’s sprouts, mushroom sage dressing, the works. She was in her element cooking for a crowd, and cooking alone.
We’d often laugh at her many kitchen stories—the time (I was too young to remember) when the pressure cooker exploded, splattering pea soup to the moon and back, or the time (I was old enough to know better) when I sneaked into a cupboard when everyone was still asleep and ate several spoonfuls of my dad’s wild blackberry birthday pie. Or another time a rat crept into the kitchen when dad wasn’t home and she called the sheriff to protect us. Once when she was cooking fresh-picked broccoli, a dozen fat worms bubbled to the surface, effectively ending homegrown broccoli. Another time while shredding horseradish, her cat curiously watching from the kitchen stool, she noticed his eyes were streaming tears. The funniest story was when mom wasn’t home and dad filled the dishwasher with liquid soap which foamed out the kitchen (her kitchen), down the hall and under the front door. That event was published in the Seattle Times!
Mom’s cupboards were full of nothing to eat (according to my sister and me). She didn’t believe in junk food, so she rarely had snacks (who wants to eat Grape Nuts, Shredded Wheat or Wheaties?). If we were hungry between meals and sick of PBJ’s, we’d raid the neighbor’s cupboards for Hostess Twinkies, fruit pies, pretzels, potato chips, Fritos, Oreos and soda (we loved our friends’ house). Though we felt deprived, Mom was onto something, a health food nut long before it was trendy. Little did I know that I’d eventually follow in her footsteps, shunning processed foods, making soups with leftovers, growing a large vegetable garden, and baking pies using her secret recipe (hint: Wesson oil).
Mom’s kitchen was where I first noticed her mental decline. One Christmas we were eating dinner at 11:00 p.m. (because she forgot how to use her new digital stove) and we missed midnight service. Another time I found a plate of leftover chicken in the cupboard. On subsequent visits I’d find half a dozen bags of hairy carrots and expired milk in her refrigerator, dishes put away in unlikely places (glasses in the cereal cupboard, coffee cups with the serving bowls), a different grocery list on each counter. She no longer cooked, so we would go out for dinner. After she died, when I was cleaning out the garage, I found a case of homemade Christmas jelly on a top shelf above the tools. It was so old I had to throw it away. I knew then she’d been going downhill for much longer than I had suspected.
Today, as I roll dough and slice apples for a birthday pie or sprinkle caraway seeds and paprika on potato salad (with lots of mustard) or stir up a batch of fresh-picked raspberry jam, I often think of Mom’s kitchen, how I learned by example. Watching her as she made spaghetti sauce in her cast iron pan, chopped fresh-dug clams and tomatoes for chowder, or whipped up waffles for dinner, I am grateful. Though she rarely experimented with complicated recipes, her healthy and tasty meals set a standard for my own kitchen, one I have passed onto my children who also love to garden, cook and eat well.
Shirlee Jellum is a retired English teacher living on a farm in the middle of nowhere. She has occasionally published poetry, fiction and non-fiction.