|I Remember Mama|
|April 28, 2003|
In Grub Report news, this site's been nominated for a Diarist Award! I'm not exactly sure what that means but since several sites I respect and frequent have won a few, I'm honored to be classed among them. Or, at least, I'm honored to be nominated to be classed among them.
Okay, so considering what I do for part of my living and what I do the rest of the time, it seemed only natural that the two should combine to make something hot and delicious. Looking back, I can see that it all started with Sesame Street and "arrangements." My parents, being conscientious and intelligent individuals, used to limit our TV-intake mainly to what was on PBS. No Soaps, no cartoons, no after school specials about teenage sex and drinking.
We'd come home, switch on Zoom, Sesame Street, Electric Company or 3-2-1 Contact and eventually be calling out to my mother for an "arrangement." That was what my mother called the snacks she made for us after school. Apple slices, squares of cheese (usually jack or cheddar), celery sticks spread with cream cheese or peanut butter and dotted with raisins, orange segments, and sometimes even an errant plum or two were all arranged attractively on a plate and brought to us in the den where we ate it sitting on the maroon shag carpet.
That was one of the few times we were allowed to eat in front of the television -- other times included special programming like 60 Minutes followed by Murder She Wrote on Sunday nights and The Paper Chase on Friday nights. On those nights we brought out the green vinyl covered card table or set up individual TV trays. God, those TV trays. They were decorated with imitation Flemish still lifes, and my older sister and I always fought over who got the one with the picture of the iron tankard filled with green-and-white and red-and-white striped candy sticks. Friday dinner was almost always tacos and Sunday was BLTs and Campbell's Chicken Noodle Soup. The sound of the 60 Minutes stopwatch still triggers a strong memory of cold noodles left at the bottom of glazed earthenware mugs and sandwiches in which we'd ditch the tomatoes and concentrate on the bacon and lettuce. We'd consider eating the toast only if we had managed to get rid of enough mayonnaise by scraping down the bread on the edge of the plate.
I have over two hundred movies on tape -- some store-bought, some taped from A&E, AMC or other channels -- and the majority of them have my mother's writing on them. When I moved to Boston she determined she had doubled up on a lot of our favorites and could manage to part with a whole flock of them. This was a major boon, and I came away with all the movies I grew up with: The Women, Evil Under the Sun, Rebecca, The Little Foxes, and of course Auntie Mame, to name only a precious few.
I can't think of any kid on our block who even knew who Irene Dunne or Danny Kaye was, much less could name five movies they were in. I dragged friends home, sat them in front of the VCR and forced them to be cultured. I usually began my oppression of the unwashed masses under the regime of Philadelphia Story and Reluctant Debutante. Rumor has it that when I thought my friends weren't quite "getting it," I would undertake to explain the plot and jokes to them. I have long suspected that I must have been a slightly insufferable child.
My mother raised me to love these movies. We'd stay up late watching them over and over again. Smelling food, my father would wander in and ask what we were watching. No matter what it was, his inevitable response was, "Again?" He never got how we could watch the same movies time after time and never get tired of them. And then he'd ask what we were eating, which was just Dadspeake for: "Can I have some?"
For my mom and me, the food was an integral part of the whole Classic movie-watching experience. In fact, it was because of the food eaten in the movies that made us want to eat along with them. Hercule Poirot -- played by Peter Ustinov or Albert Finney -- always had something in his mouth. He ate soft boiled eggs and toast points in Evil Under the Sun, talked about eating morels in Death on the Nile but got moray eel instead because David Niven didn't understand his French, and drank all sorts of cocktails. I think there was Creme de Banane, Creme de Menthe, and Creme de Cacao -- all in a tiny glass with an even tinier straw. It was comical to see a corpulent Peter Ustinov grappling with such a weeny drink as he waited for the "leetle gray cells" to kick in.
I really didn't have microwave popcorn until I went away to college. In our house popcorn was made in this now-so-very-dated-that-it's-hip-again-or-maybe-that's-just-what-I'll-tell-my-mom-so-she-gives-it-to-me-and-not-my-sisters popcorn maker. You poured Canola oil into the black base (just until it reached the first rim), dumped in a cup of kernels, and clamped on the orange plastic see-through lid. There was a circle of punched holes at the very top. I guess you were supposed to put pats of butter in there so that as the popcorn popped, the butter would melt and drizzle down. We never used it. Instead we melted hunks of butter in this tiny yellow cast iron saucepan. It had a long handle and was coated with enamel on the inside. Once the corn was popped as much as it was going to pop, the popcorn maker was flipped over and the black cooking element was removed. The yellow lid became the community bowl and melted butter was drizzled over the top and tossed around. I loved the way some popcorn shriveled immediately when the hot butter hit it. So yes, we did have the ubiquitous popcorn quite a few times, but my mother always sought out such tempting treats for herself in the kitchen that my tastes eventually wandered beyond the butter.
I remember staying up very late to watch my first Gilbert and Sullivan on PBS -- I think it was Yeoman of the Guard -- and we got hungry. My mother dug into our old brown freezer -- it had this huge wire drawer you just dumped everything in -- and pulled out some cheese balls. I don't know who made them and I don't know if we ever found them again but they were really good. They came in a aluminum pie tray and were covered with a deep-fried crust. While in the oven, a few of them exploded a little bit and oozed cheese, but that only made that particular part of them crispier. I mean, who doesn't pull the sizzled cheese off the bottom of plastic Stouffer's Macaroni and Cheese trays? Exactly. They were still good. We soused them in French's yellow mustard and were very content.
Anything British also seemed to call for snacks because, again, they were always eating something themselves: tea cakes, tea sandwiches, boiled dinners, fried breakfasts, and Audrey fforbes-Hamilton's so very nicely halved avocados. However, I do have an untested theory that maybe it was just their accents that made absolutely everything sound delicious. Sir John Gielgud could say, "Creamed spinach?" and I'd say, "Yes, please!" Even though I'd want to retch as soon as I smelled it. Come to think of it, Audrey Hepburn and Walter Matthau made liverwurst sandwiches unduly appealing in Charade and I'm not sure if that had anything to do with accents. Anyway, when Joan Hickson was Miss Marpling all over the English countryside we brought out our own cucumber sandwiches -- except when I was going through that phase where I refused to eat anything green -- Stoneground Whole Wheat crackers spread Philadelphia cream cheese and topped with slices of purple onions, cream cheese sandwiches, and Ritz crackers stacked with summer sausage and cream cheese. We were all about the cream cheese. It was also strictly observed that Claussen (NOT Vlasic!) dill pickles had to be on the side of everything.
Once my gastronomic needs were seen to, my mother would to bring out this small, burnt-wood, cutting board with a handle. On it she would have slices of cheddar cheese, a smear of mustard, a little pile of salt and several whole scallions. I was fascinated by this. As Mary Haynes blubbered into her pillow after that famous catfight between Rosalind Russell and Paulette Goddard where destruction of hats and biting was involved, my mother took the trimmed-at-the-root scallions and dipped then in the salt before biting into them. After watching this several times, I finally tried it. It was crispy, piquant, and salty with some sweetness -- all weird, but strangely satisfying. I preferred to take a bit of scallion and pop a piece of cheddar cheese in my mouth after it. This, I found to be, the perfection combination. And lucky were we if there happened to be a leftover ham in the fridge; we would chip off pieces and also drag them through the smears of French's mustard. Oddly, I felt more one with Poirot if I was eating ham and pickles.
As time went on, Mom and I got more inventive. I seem to recall carrots dipped in barbeque sauce that then turned into cream cheese and crackers with barbeque sauce dolloped on top. Faugh, I think I'm getting indigestion. And speaking of popping some lemon-flavored Tums, I can't even count how many hotdogs I ate while watching W.C. Fields' Poppy just because he and Rochelle Hudson eat them in ONE scene. When W.C. Fields put two dogs in one bun, so did I. When W.C. Fields spread mustard on his, so did I. When W.C. Fields put saurkraut on his, I shook garlic pepper on mine. I'm not really one for stewed and pickled cabbage.
To this day, if I've got something in the VCR, you can bet I've got something on a plate as well.