My mom spent her last years in a nursing home. When we visited, her recollections quite often turned to family gatherings. As a holiday, such as Thanksgiving, approached her ongoing wish was to be able to fix “a big dinner.” In her generation, cooking for others was a grand way of expressing herself.
Her home cooking was a cross between the classic offerings of her French Louisiana heritage and the dishes of the then modern housewife. Long before the microwave quickened the speed of cooking, meals were made faster in her world by the pressure cooker, a pot with a lockable lid and a valve to let out the steam. Cabbage, beans, anything cookable was made better by the pressure cooker. I have tried, without success, to duplicate the flavor of her boiled cabbage, which had the extra advantage of producing “pot liquor” the juice from the cooked cabbage enriched by the bounty of flavors from within the pot. While the dish was still cooling I would ladle some of the juice into a cup. A peppery taste was the first sensation followed by the flavors of pickled meat, carrots and greens.
As a kid, I never did adapt well to hot breakfasts, perhaps because of the anxiety of the school day ahead. One dish that did make the cut was her version of pain perdu (French toast) for which slices of white bread were drenched in an egg batter, fried and then served with syrup or jelly. We did not have the slices of French bread or the powdered sugar of the fancy restaurants, but we did have peanut butter, which allowed for our own innovation.
Breakfast for her when she was growing up was often cornbread and milk, a poor folks food common to rural Louisiana often referred to, phonetically, as “coosh-coosh.” On good days the cornbread was speckled with pieces of cracklings that added a crunch to breakfast long before Rice Krispies.
Her two best supper dishes were mushroom rice (the modern housewife influence) and stuffed mirlitons (the French Louisiana influence). Both were stellar dishes but the latter was closest to her roots. She had two versions of the mirlitons; one made with shrimp and the other with ham. At what turned out to be her last Thanksgiving at home she made a platter-full of both versions. Unfortunately, a relative who was asked to keep the dish in his refrigerator because my mom’s was full, misunderstood that the mirlitons were to be served on Thanksgiving and instead devoured them earlier. At least he was thankful.
While some of us are still blessed to have our moms, all of us are increasingly separated from the early grand dinners in our lives. Food, I learned from watching my mom, provided nourishment, not only for the body but also for memories.
BOOK ANNOUNCEMENT: Errol’s Laborde’s books, “New Orleans: The First 300 Years” and “Mardi Gras: Chronicles of the New Orleans Carnival” (Pelican Publishing Company, 2017 and 2013), are available at local bookstores and at book websites.
WATCH INFORMED SOURCES, FRIDAYS AT 7 P.M., REPEATED AT 11:30 P.M. WYES-TV, CH. 12.