Why I Eat, Cook and Bake the Way I Do

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Each of us has a special recollection of our mother’s, grandmother’s, or other relative’s cooking. We can talk about that memory at length and how we yearn to taste a special recipe from the past that invokes such intense feelings. We also have our own particular eating habits which determine how each of us expects certain foods to taste and recipes to turn out. I don’t think there will ever be the perfect cookbook or perfect recipe because of our particular culinary expectations.

Let me tell you tell you briefly about my family’s culinary back ground. Two European parents, home cooking and cultural favorites helped expand my food choices. Everything was home made and we ate a wide variety of vegetables, green salads, poultry and little red meat. My mother was years ahead of the concept of healthy eating. Somehow she didn’t believe all that chicken fat, fried or heavy foods often traditional in Jewish menus was healthy.

My mother also came from a poor working class household and often times were of extreme hardship with meager food choices. Her mother was an excellent cook and my mom had special kitchen chores and thus became the “salad girl” of her family at a young age. She prepared a variety of salads such as cucumber, carrot, potato, bean and beet salad etc.; using the basic European staple vegetables which were bought at outdoor markets.

In her family, nothing was ever wasted. There was no such thing as a snack then. Bread was a staple most housewives knew to prepare. Challah, braided egg bread, was prepared for the Sabbath. Most meals were basic, yet nutritious. Big meals as well as desserts were reserved only for special occasions and the Sabbath.

In comparison, my family’s biggest meal was on Sunday because both my parents worked. Sunday morning my father made stacks of home made pancakes and waffles. My brothers and I smeared on the butter so thickly that it would drip down the sides of the tall pancake stacks. I am sure the pancakes were more fun to eat than the waffles. I still own and use the same General Electric waffle iron my dad used which must be at least 50 years old. Every time I use that waffle iron, I think of my dad. Ironically I prepare pancakes and waffles breakfasts only on the weekends. For Sunday supper we usually had savory oven broiled chicken, a large green salad, cooked vegetables, steamed potatoes and of course home made cake and often a Jell-O™ dessert.

When my parents sold their house, my mother asked me to save her stove. It was the first appliance my father ever bought her. It has been thirty years now and I still have mom’s Estate brand gas stove (with griddle top, separate broiler and oven) stored in my basement. I can’t seem to part with it because it is a symbol of so many wonderful food memories of the past. I also remember that the last person going to bed had to check the stove to make sure all the knobs were turned to off.

During the week my family normally ate delicious but simple meals. My mom prepared such recipes as her stove top meat loaf, goulash, baked chicken , steamed mixed vegetables, rice or pasta , Viennese cucumber salad, green salad and sometimes a wonderful bean and vegetable soup made with meaty soup bones. Remember when soup bones were free and the butcher saved them for the customers dogs? Soup Bones are now considered expensive to buy at the supermarket.

There were certain foods I disliked eating as a young child which I later learned to enjoy. I couldn’t stomach tomatoes, onions, mushrooms and broccoli. My older brother seemed to like them all and I remember being teased by him. He always stuck his fingers in my plate to take something away saying it was food “taxes” I had to pay.

My father, the chef, always prepared the annual Thanksgiving meal in the restaurant kitchen (we lived in the same building as the restaurant). Mother did not like him in her kitchen and found herself cleaning up after to him. He seemed to use every utensil, dish and pot found in all the cabinets. Mom was very particular and didn’t enjoy cleaning up after him. So it was very funny to watch her kick out dad, the master chef from the kitchen!

The main beverage of choice for our family was hot brewed tea served in tall glasses after dinner. Why, you may wonder, was tea served in glasses? Well that’s how my mother’s mother did it, since it helped keep ones hands warm in winter. So drinking tea from tall glasses was a family tradition we never gave much thought about. Mother had a habit to brew her tea light and reuse the tea bag for another time or two. It had nothing to do with cost but just a habit she still practices to this day.

I also remember a particular German language class I took in high school. One test question was, ”What does one drink tea from? “ I immediately jotted down “from a glass“. I could have gotten a perfect test score and I approached the teacher telling her that’s how we drank tea at home. Nevertheless she did not give me credit for the answer since it was not the normal response! I should have written the correct answer which was “cup”.

Mother rarely prepared packaged foods until she discovered the wonders of Jell-O™ Gelatin in the 1960’s. Our weekend desserts of simple homemade European cakes and pastries now included the most intricate gelatin desserts. Her collection of gelatin molds remains hanging in my kitchen today.

She tried box cake mixes a few times but preferred home made since the taste and texture a box mix could not compare to her recipes. Today I scrutinize food labels but I am sure she was not concerned about the food dyes, sugars and preservatives, present in any box mix dessert. 30 years ago, no one really seemed concerned about such things.

Mother, usually baked a variety of fruit kuchens, kugelhops and butter based bundt cakes studded with raisins, citron and nuts, pastries such as rugelach and schecken ( jam or cinnamon nut filled horns and pastry snails) and other pastry type cookies. She liked to cut her cakes into fourths, then wrap and freeze the sections. If a friend stopped by, defrosting a section of cake was quick and easy.

So the only snacks we had around the house when I was growing up were fresh fruit and of course my mother’s cakes and pastries. I really didn’t discover junk food such as chips, dips, fries etc. until I was a teenager. . When my children were teenagers and made money babysitting, they bought and ate their share of chips, dips, soda and a variety of the fatty stuff teens seem to eat during their growth spurt. Fat is good and necessary but not when over done. Today, my daughters who are now in their mid twenties follow more healthful food choices.

As a teen, I loved pizza. My father or mother never prepared pizza or rarely ate it. So I began to look through cookbooks and experiment and soon my pizza was a Friday night supper. But not the typical pizza either. Although I did make the traditional mozzarella and tomato sauce pizza I also made Swiss cheese pizza and tuna and mushroom pizza. Friends were incredulous. Once they tasted my pizza they really did enjoy it. My Polish girlfriend suggested putting on Kielbasa sausage and soon we had an international Friday night Pizza supper at my house. I was 13 at the time.

Dad was a restaurateur, caterer and Escoffier chef. He prepared a variety of delicious European and American dishes. One restaurant featured mostly European menus and the other more typical Americana fare. We lived above the latter. After school I had access to the soda fountain and all sorts of food stuffs. Friends wondered why I or my family never became fat. I truly believe it was my parent’s direction to eat healthy. We were simply thankful for the basics.

Father had no room for or catsup in either of his restaurants until the waitresses reminded him that his customers enjoyed it on their foods. He reluctantly had it available. He could not understand why I liked catsup on scrambled eggs, french-fries or other things. As years passed he slowly accepted catsup as a condiment used with certain foods as well as in recipes. He also got used to his customer’s suggestions and served whatever they wanted. Over the years I also taste tested a variety of things which I think expanded my taste horizon. Some things I ended up liking. I even experimented myself and enjoyed making grilled peanut butter and jelly sandwiches during my college years.

His customers sometimes ordered unusual lunch sandwiches such as roast beef, onions and grape jelly, peanut butter with bologna or bacon with banana, or sardines with Russian dressing, sliced onion and a sliced hard boiled egg on a hard roll. I’ve tried them all. I particularly liked cream cheese and sweet pickles instead of olives.

I remember bringing some deli meat sandwiches to junior high school for lunch but soon stopped the practice since most of the kids questioned me or made fun of my sandwiches, Who ever heard of liverwurst, corned beef or cooked sliced beef tongue????!!!!. So tuna fish, egg salad or peanut butter were my usual sandwiches. I didn’t bother buying a hot lunch. With a half hour to eat and standing in line for 15 minutes what good was it to each the tray of Spanish rice, a carton of milk, and slice of white bread with a pat of butter. Sounds like it could be your school lunch of the past, too?

When I was first married I decided to make my husband that special sardine sandwich I so vividly remembered. His look of disgust and horror I initially took as a joke. I was very hurt to find out he thought the sandwich quite disgusting, so I ended up eating mine with him looking on in quiet distaste. I guess I do understand now why some people hate certain things, fruitcake being an example!

I also discovered he did not like rice, pasta or any noodles in his chicken soup or any soup simply because his mother never added such ingredients to soup. She only made chicken soup with matzoh balls. I was very surprised that Jewish penicillin was not a particular favorite of his. His eating habits were quite different than mine. He grew up eating cold cuts, fried and heavy fatty foods and his mom had his tonsils removed when she heard that would fatten up a child. Her concept of healthy was being very well nourished or in other words chubby.

When we were first married we compromised and became lacto ova vegetarians. But when I became pregnant I craved meat and that ending our vegetarian diet. Today we still do not eat a lot of red meat and we try to eat a variety of fish and poultry and varied vegetarian dishes. Neither of us eats red meat except on special occasions or perhaps for special summer barbecues. . And when we do eat beef, I purchase the top of the line quality beef cuts.

When our children were small we ate at a local fast food chain about once every two weeks at pay day. Burgers, fries and a shake (I found out the shakes were non dairy and oil based) was quickly stopped when I read an article indicating the meal we ate contained enough fat and salt for the week! We then would eat at diners where the choices were healthier. And eating out as you all may know is really a form of entertainment. It is amazing when you add up the dollars and cents how much one pays out the pocket during the year. Once we figured the yearly cost of eating out was over $2000 and we drastically curtailed our habit of eating out.

The majority of my children’s’ meals were home prepared because I wanted them to have a wide variety of healthy food choices, especially fresh fruits and vegetables. We also wanted to introduce different menus. We enjoyed preparing ethnic foods sampling many international menus thus discovering new foods and tastes.

I gravitate toward ethnic grocery stores when we travel and also stop by ethnic bakeries to sample something new or just browse. I have prepared Japanese, Caribbean, Greek, Ethiopian, Spanish, Thai, and other cuisines amongst the popular, French, Italian, Mexican and Chinese menus for my family to try.

I believe in well rounded food choices and also in moderation. I steer away from box mixes which contain too much salt, MSG, sugar, dyes, preservatives etc. for my taste. Cold cuts, hot dogs, cured meats or fish and fried foods are also eaten in moderation.. However, I am willing to try new and different foods at least once.

Sure, once in a while I do use a mix of some sort but it is rare. I feel better when I prepare food using fresh produce and dietary staples. We do limit going out to eat. Truly I feel homemade is best. Whether you agree with me or not, I believe cooking at home is more economical, healthier and more rewarding. My family also thinks many of my dishes are so much better than the restaurant prepared ones.

I was very lucky to have a mom who cooked such good and healthy meals, taught me many baking skills and a father who introduced me to a variety of European menus and the old fashioned way to prepare food. I’ve tried to introduce the same values to my children and hope they keep up the practice of healthy food choices, eating in moderation and trying new foods.

I still collect recipes and cook and bake new things. I am always seeking different ways to prepare standard recipes. I have no favorite recipe but many versions of recipe categories. I am fascinated by the variety and changes evolving in the American diet and often wonder what the Food Pyramid will indicate next. Enjoying eye appealing, delicious food is certainly a pleasure. Food is love! Remember though, you are what you eat.

Bon Appétite!


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