My Mother’s Fricassee
Reading my husband’s cousin’s review of recipes of those dead but dear to her reminded me of my own mother’s fricassee. Not a particularly great cook, my mother would lament that the stove that never closed properly or the store bell that would perpetually summon her just five minutes before the completion of cookies caused the ruination of her culinary prowess.
In truth she never claimed that she rivaled Julia Child or even the Galloping Gourmet, but then I imagine she was often just too tired to even to try to discover new food concoctions. What purpose would there be to experiment, especially when a long winded client might enter our store and keep her listening when she knew something might be burning in her dilapidated oven.
Yet she could often be caught in reverie or awe over her mother-in-law’s stuffed peppers or the perfect apple pies that my father so savoured from his boyhood. And the famed family chocolate was always a topic of discussion when the tetchy aunts gathered.
But food at our house, for the most part, consisted of a rather tough overcooked thinly sliced liver on Mondays with canned peas and boiled potatoes, a salad with no dressing (doesn’t need it, informed my father); hamburger on Tuesdays, but occasionally a can of Bravo tomato sauce transformed that lowly boring mess into a coveted spaghetti dinner for all but my father. My sister and I almost danced with joy. On Wednesday, a chop with more canned peas and potatoes again and the same listless salad with no dressing. The routine continued with fish on Thursdays, either halibut or white fish with The Green Giant’s peas, the potatoes and yes, the same salad. On this day, she would bounce onto the bus and head for the Penguin Fish store at Avenue Road and Eglinton , and then decide on whether she would purchase the large ( $1.10) or small ( 90 cents) chocolate cake at Margo’s cake store. Packages in hand, she would jump back on the bus and be home before noon to make my father his lunch.
Sometimes, she did something with a pressure cooker and steam thrust itself out of a hole on top of the pot, but results were not enjoyable and rather soft and brown – looking. Even my father would complain and my sister and I would scrunch our faces into distorted frowns, totally ignoring my mother’s exhaustion as she had unsuccessfully peppered our diet with something besides the repeated parade of bland foods acceptable to our father.
But- Fridays and Saturdays soared- as first, our noses detected the savoury delicious smells from the kitchen because on Friday, our mother’s secularized Shabbath, she managed to transform her ingredients- in spite of popping in and out of the store- into wonders. Her chicken soup was more than passable and treat of treats, contained little prized eggies along with lochsen/noodles. Her chicken roasted in the dark blue pan was a queen squired by carrots and potatoes glazed by Heinz’s tomato sauce. The first night was pretty good, but the leftovers still ensconced in the pot on Saturday were very, very tasty.
However, her fricassee was sublime. She said the recipe had come down to her from my father’s mother. She hand grated onions and carrots into a sauce with ketchup, adding bits of chicken parts, a quarter cup of brown sugar and water and when it bubbled, she dropped little meatballs into the mixture. Slowly cooked over several hours, the resulting taste only required soft braided yellow challa to absorb the juices.
I mentioned the fricassee to my aunt once who chortled a little and admitted that when family recipes were handed down, especially to daughter in-laws like my mother, it was not surprising for an ingredient to be kept secret, purposefully omitted, and in this case, it was the squeezes of fresh lemon to create a slightly sweet and spicy flavour, very good in cabbage rolls too, she demurred.
My mother always said the magic ingredient was not the lemon which she scoffed; it was love. So like her to say such a thing! Why was it then, that only the weekends offered food that we ate slowly and carefully and thoughtfully to pull out all the enmeshed flavours?
A relative who also reflected on her own mother’s recipes mentioned how the handwriting of her mother provided insight into her demeanour at a variety of stages in her life, the younger she was, the letters drawn firmly, confidently as she had lived. Later, the script shaky suggesting an unsure hand.
So it was with my mother, as well, embarrassed that her perfect letters had begun to knock into one another so that a “g” might actually be a “p” or a”y”. Although not a vain woman, my mother seemed to write less and less, so annoyed that her ciphers no longer kept their integrity as individual soldiers, increasingly laxly appearing as an entire brigade at rest lolling and shifting.
I liked to imagine my mother bouncing up while we all slept soundly in our warm toasty beds to cook a chicken for a trip somewhere, usually to the States, ensuring the contents in that blue pan were well cooked before wrapping it in several layers of blankets to keep it warm on the road. The melding of the simple vegetables that just grazed the sides of the roasted chicken were celebrated under the dappled shade by the side of the road. She never complained and we never thanked her either.
We were family of set patterns, expecting without concern of the weight and responsibility it took to manage a home, store and family when our father was handicapped by polio. We thought ourselves, at least superficially, the equal of the fine girls in the rich Forest Hill houses with their country clubs and synagogues and accoutrements. We never considered that our frail, fragile mother kept us together like a spider’s web on skinny threads by her energy, devotion and nervous energy. We had no idea of the cost of those actions, and truly cared only for ourselves as girls, youths pampered by her attentions, “ her treasures”, as she referred to us.
Only as we age and mature do we pause to consider the behaviour of our parents, our body rhythms slowing, our extremities reminding us and protesting their years of use and dis-use. Only then can we empathize and recall our upbringings as children and troubled adolescents whose interests veer far from the worries of their mothers and fathers.
Too late to enter into a discussion or smile a thank you, I suppose the acknowledgement that we had grown as they had hoped, healthy, moral, headed for a future that would be brighter than their own sufficed. My parents did not seek thanks, their desire was not for back-slapping or public declarations of the high costs of raising us as admirable humans; we were enough. Yet as I age, I wish I had had an opportunity to express or reminisce more about my mother’s tasty tomato sauce that made Tuesdays so much better, or kiss her unwrinkled face more often in silent appreciation of her sacrifices- that I believed my right, not her extreme effort: a strand of a noodle to the entire repast.