Tuesday, December 25, 2012
When it comes to trying new food, I've always leaned to the cautious side – a trait I inherited from my father. He was a traditionalist. He believed that cooking was best left to the women. Except for breakfast, which he made for himself each morning. He put a small pot on the stove, measured in milk and oatmeal, and left it to simmer while he read the newspaper. When it was ready – and if it hadn't yet burned – he plopped the “pup” as we called it, into a bowl, added a generous heaping of sugar, and washed everything down with Maxwell House instant coffee, sweetened with three spoonfuls of sugar.
My mother's love for food might have kindled an adventuresome spirit, had it not been for the hard years of raising seven children while trying to make ends meet. Dinner was something to made quickly at the end of a long, tiring day. Quantity was more important than quality. And it had to be cheap to feed a family of nine on my parents' squeezed income. After driving hours around the countryside as a visiting nurse, my mother arrived home hungry and tired only to face husband and various children slouched in the living room, waiting for her to get dinner started. No wonder her mood turned sour, and her tongue sharpened. Could one of us at least get up and peel some potatoes? Pot lids were banged, frying pans were slapped on the stove, someone was yelled at to set the table.
Our typical weekday dinner consisted of a large thin steak from a cow that my father had butchered. My mother fried it in margarine, the meat's fatty edges curling up. Seared on high heat to cook faster, the steak always ended up tough. My father sliced it thinly, then forked two or three slices onto each of our plates. We did away with ceremony, putting the cooking pots directly on the grey arborite table. Boiled white potatoes, boiled peas, beans or corn drawn from the store of frozen vegetables harvested from the garden, and without fail, a large orange Melmac bowl of applesauce. According to Dad, applesauce was an essential food group. In the summer, a green salad brightened the table, along with asparagus, broccoli and cauliflower fresh from the garden. Dessert, or “tuitje” as we called it, might be a slice of purchased pound cake, or a few slices of canned peaches or pears over a scoop of neapolitan ice cream.
Sundays called for a slightly more elaborate meal. Sometimes we ate pork chops with red cabbage flavoured with cloves; or a rabbit stew with mashed potatoes and a can of creamed corn. The rabbit, like all our other food, was home-grown – a couple of cages in the garage held floppy-eared black and white bunnies munching on the lettuce my father refused to eat, calling all salad greens “rabbit food.” Sometimes my mother would make old-fashioned Dutch comfort food, like Stampot, which for some reason we called “hutsput.” Imagine a mash of onions, carrots and potatoes, boiled together with a large curl of Kolbasa sausage. Our neighbours probably considered hutsput and some of our other meals adventuresome: boiled heart, boiled tongue, and fried liver and onions. Ordering out or dining out was a rare adventure. Occasionally, on a summer Saturday night, my father would let us pick up a bucket or two of Kentucky Fried Chicken. We dug into those greasy chicken thighs and truly believed they were “finger lickin' good.” Once a year we were treated to supper at the Pineview Family Kitchen on Highway 9 where we feasted on hamburgers and fries, or hot beef sandwiches – a thin slice of beef layered between two pieces of Weston's white bread and covered with thick gooey canned gravy, with mashed potatoes and peas on the side.
If anticipation can be called a part of adventure, then birthdays were the ultimate adventure. As the birthday person, you could ask for anything you wanted for the evening meal. But no matter whose birthday it was, the request never varied: my mother's french fries. A couple of we older children helped Mum peel an entire 10-pound bag of potatoes. We cut each potato into long thin strips, and then Mum took over, dunking a metal sieve filled with potato strips into a deep pot simmering with hot fat. There were two dunkings: the first one, about eight minutes long, cooked the rawness out of the potatoes.
The second one took just a few minutes and finished off the job, turning the strips golden brown. The end product could have won awards: crisp on the outside, fluffy on the inside – even when plastered with ketchup. But it took hours at the stove to transform a bag of potatoes into enough fries to feed the hungry hordes. The birthday celebrant also had his or her choice of dessert: chocolate eclairs; a marbled white and chocolate cake; or a tart lemon meringue pie.
After leaving home, I remember one of my first forays into unknown food territory. I was newly married. My first husband David and I lived in an upstairs apartment in downtown Toronto. One afternoon, my friend Martine sat cross-legged on the red and cream patterned carpet in our living room. Light streamed through the red and green patchwork squares of my home-made curtains. Martine peeled a furry brown fruit about the size of a large egg. It drab exterior belied a shocking interior: spokes of fluourescent green radiated from a creamy white centre surrounded by flecks of tiny black seeds.
“Want a piece?” Martine held out a plate, coins of the green fruit arranged in a circle.
“What is it?” I asked, tentatively.
“A kiwi,” she replied. Then, seeing my face, “You've never had one before?”
I shook my head. I wasn't confident about ingesting a fruit that looked so bold, so exotic.
“C'mon, it's delicious,” Martine urged. I reluctantly picked up a piece and slid it into my mouth. Tart and sweet burst upon my tongue, the smooth pulp dissolving into tingling aftershocks of flavour. I took the plate from Martine.
“This is...” I mouthed a second, and then a third slice, “wonderful!” Martine laughed.
Not all new food adventures were so wonderful. I remember my first Thanksgiving at David's family home. His parents were third-generation Scottish farmers who lived in an old stone home near Perth, Ontario. On this holiday, we were coming to the end of our early afternoon dinner. The turkey and stuffing, the gravy and cranberry sauce, the butternut squash, and the mashed potatoes had been cleared from the table, making way for the pièce de résistance – Mrs. Poole's famous pumpkin pie. I had never before eaten pumpkin pie. Mrs. Poole believed I was in for a treat, and handed me an inordinately large piece of pie on a blue Wedgwood plate. A surreptitious examination revealed a texture and colour that reminded me unpleasantly of the contents of countless diapers of my siblings when they were babies. But everyone around the table was digging in, so I maneuvered a small corner of the pie onto my fork and popped it into my mouth. I nearly gagged. A sharp taste of cinnamon and nutmeg fought with the cloying flavour of pureed pumpkin. Meanwhile, my father-in-law was passing around a bowl of whipped cream as garnish to the pie. I heaved an overly generous mound of cream onto my plate. With infinite care, small bits of pie drowned in whipped cream made it down my gullet. I was the last to finish.
“Another piece?” asked Mrs. Poole.
“No thanks, I'm full to bursting,” I lied, “but it was delicious.”
These days I leave the food adventuring to husband John. “Shall I surprise you?” he asks. “Sure,” I reply. Over the years, the reluctance in my voice has almost completely faded. John bounces up the stairs to find a recipe on the Internet. An hour later I sit down to something delicious: from the best spaghetti sauce I've ever tried, to spicy eggplant in a black bean sauce over Udon noodles, to a smooth chicken curry flavoured with coconut milk. John has proved to be a fine cook, and his adventures happily please my taste buds.
Left to myself, I'm my father's daughter, updated for the times. My daily breakfast? Oatmeal – made with water, not milk, but simmered for the same 20 minutes required of my father's pup. A handful of defrosted raspberries as topping and everything washed down with a frothy cappuccino. No sugar.