. . . GREASY SPOONS and TRIBAL SOUP
The newspaper blurb below is what my Mother and Dad apparently intimated to a reporter from The Sun in 1936, before they moved to Elkridge in 1947:
The interview was a factual conversation with no hint of regret. I’m sure cooking was a tiresome but necessary chore for Mother over the years (I say “her” because I never saw Daddy so much as boil water). And by that I mean Mother NEVER passed along to me any enthusiasm about the daily routine. It wasn’t her fault that she didn’t grow up to appreciate the nuances of life in the kitchen. Her parents had a family cook to do all that for her, and the most her mother (our grandmother Riefle) cooked was Cream of Wheat from the box.
So Daddy knew what he was getting when he married my Mother – his soul mate – an artist in the “Fine Arts” first and always.
1950 photo is all us kits and caboodles gathered in our music room, in Edgewood Cottage.
That endeavor stuck as a family motto (except maybe for one of my siblings). We ate to live, not lived to eat. We ate to live so we could create art. We all ate nicely out of necessity, not because we cared to eat extravagantly.
An added bonus is the fact that as our Mother was not a kitchen diva. In today’s world, she would not have had her own cooking show. So there was never really an overweight problem among us due to starchy foods, constant candy, or over-sized portions. Nobody but her wanted a first helping of cooked rhubarb, let alone a second helping. Nobody wanted okra either. Her milky oyster stew could be tricky and we prayed for GRACE when she handpicked mushrooms from the yard. So we had no problem keeping trim as well as believing God would protect.
On the other hand, any would-be mothers-in-law who might have wanted me to marry one their sons, always chorused that I was too skinny and ate like a bird. I always suspected their secret mission in life was to…
“Well, we’ll have to change that, won’t we dear? Help yourself to more mashed potatoes.”
That they held the apparent belief that my having an interest in sweating in a kitchen all day and getting plump proved I’d be the ideal wife for their son, was not the way to get me to an altar. Their introduction to the prospects of me cooking hog jaws or pigs knuckles for a lifetime was not the way to get me to an altar either. One doesn’t just marry a single person, but their whole family.
Being a college-bound budding artist, I had to make some necessary choices when waving red flags fluttered in the windmills of my mind screaming: “NO way!” “OVER my dead body!” “Heck NO!” “RUN!”
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The rituals of tribal cooking are usually ceremoniously passed from the mother to daughter. But Mother did not stand on ceremony and, though adequately cooking for us, she did not sacrifice her knowledge of it to me (her youngest and last chance) unless it was an emergency – like when she was going to be away from the tepee for a week or two.
“Pay attention. I’m only gonna show you this once. These are cans called “white man’s soup,” possibly with bits o-baloney protein.”
That experience happened when my sister was already married and living in her own tepee and my brother was boarding at military academy. Then our Mother prepared me on how to over-cook spinach, char the liver and make other stuff for Dad and me to eat. Actually, with my inexperience and temperament, I probably did not have the patience to wait for the burn, so the food was not too raw, or, in other words — we didn’t get sick.
In addition, for the most part, I could already pretty much keep our home in the order and style it was used to. And it gave me an added sense of confidence that she trusted me enough to follow her instructions and play “Susie Q homemaker” for Dad who, bless his heart, never complained. He even told me he wanted to help me keep the home tidy, but I don’t remember what he actually did.
Looking back, that role-playing would have waxed thin any longer than the times I had to play it, and I was willing to hand back the broom and skillet as soon as Mother walked in the door. But, I earned my Brownie points.
Before me and my siblings were born, if Mother was away on a holiday with relatives, I’m pretty sure Dad went back to his mother’s house for meals or shifted for himself. If while our Mother was away when my two siblings were still children, then I honestly don’t know what those three did, but I think they also went back to his mother’s house for meals.
All I remember is that I didn’t see Daddy cook when I was young. On his days off from teaching, his idea of getting me lunch was slapping plain or fancy olive & pimento baloney onto white pieces of bread, with or without margarine, mayonnaise, or a piece o’cheese. It was handy.
Baloney with olives & pimentos was my least favorite lunch meat, but I was glad he could do that or I would have resorted to making my usual standby – crunchy style peanut butter. If Daddy’s mother (our grandma Bahr) hadn’t have died before then, bless her heart, I guess he and I would have gone to her house for lunch too.
So for just these times, Dad kept a supply of handy baloney for himself in the fridge, and if that isn’t a metaphor for something, I don’t know what is.
To give him credit — he could slice an already cooked Butterball turkey or lop off the head of my favorite hen (Anne Boleyn), or go to the grocery store with a shopping list, or perhaps boil water (although I accused him once of not being able to do even that because I’d never seen him do it), but I just don’t remember much else of any kitchen toil, let alone enough to warrant his wearing an apron. I may have been too busy with my coloring book to take notice. But I doubt it. I think I’d have noticed my Dad in an apron. That is a portrait I would have wanted to paint.
Like many men on different schedules from their wives, when Mother was working, he went out for cheap eats to vary his diet beyond lunch meat.
Those were the days when he took me with him to the Maryland Institute of Art — when I was out of elementary school in the summer. I spent all day too young to be a student in his class but not too embarrassed to gawk at the nude models.
Waiting on him at the end of each of those long sessions, I became particularly bored at the altar of eternal boredom. Outside his classroom, sitting on the top step of the grand marble staircase at the second floor level, waiting for him to clean his brushes and lock up his supplies seem to take forever. Asking him to hurry up didn’t make him move any faster.
I was tired of exploring studios, tired of day dreaming what life might be for me in the future, tired of counting how many steps there were in the entire staircase, or how many dark veins traced patterns in one white marble step — what with my sinuses tripping from the exotic smells of oil paint and turpentine wafting in the air to boot. And I was HUNGRY.
Anyhow, once on the road for our eagerly anticipated dinner, he would stop at the Hecht Company cafeteria in Edmondson Village, which I thought was a BIG deal because I could get what I wanted to eat, including an egg custard or rice pudding for dessert, and yes, I was even allowed to carry my own tray to the table. Dad would stop to eat there so often that he got to know the other customers, and, if I was along, would introduce me to some of his artistic cronies whose wives apparently weren’t available at home to cook for them either.
Other cheap eats he took me to were his favorite feedbags = one being the Polka Dot Restaurant. Far and away, the Polka Dot was the most fun on Route 1. I mean, who wouldn’t want to travel an extra mile or two to a restaurant made of cinder block painted with big pink and brown polka dots? I liked imaginative environments and those colorful cinder blocks captured my imagination. The waitresses all called my Dad “Leonard,” so I realized he went there a lot (interesting what a child can understand). While he relaxed with a meal from a long day of teaching or mowing the lawn, I enjoyed their lemon meringue pie.
The other cheap eatery was Pressleys, the beloved greasy spoon on the corner of Levering Ave. and Route 1. It was close to our house and had a handy hardware section. We both sat on stools at the counter, with me tall enough to be just eye-level with the backside of the fry cook. I don’t know who the dear soul was at the time, but the jiggle of her rear quarters signaled just how long it was going to take to get a burger.
Over the years, Dad recounted his visits there to anyone who’d listen and his stories always ended in guffaws. Apparently he noticed on occasion that the same fry cook, while facing the stove, didn’t realize or care how she looked by scratching behind herself, through her uniform of course. If that didn’t cut his appetite, then her wringing out the grease from burgers with her fingers could have. I remember seeing that myself. Little wonder why my burgers tasted different.
Even as a kid, I thought that she should have worn a hair net, at least.
Before Dad had the new house built down the driveway from Edgewood Cottage, Mother was still “doing her thing” in the kitchen of falling paint chips. Once, when she didn’t have an errand to run, she showed me how to make pancakes out of Bisquick. Sometimes she would want me to watch her bake a cake — as if the steps of baking would stay ingrained! My brain intake was fleetingly momentary because I wasn’t interested beyond licking the bowls. Mother knew that my future talents were in the arena of art, so she wasn’t having me learn such nonsense as to “make some man happy through his stomach” (that is what mother-in-laws were for). And maybe also she didn’t want to waste her time teaching me stuff I didn’t eat, like the way I recoiled at her homemade applesauce.
Every summer season, she would NOT pick the tart green apples from our orchard trees. Not wasting anything, she’d gather up only the fallen ones instead — those with big brown bruise spots which the bees or the worms seem to prefer. She’d cut them up (not necessarily cutting off the bruises and pooh-poohing me about a few little worms), cook them down, and then grind them to pulp with a wooden pestle in a masher gizmo standing on its four metal feet above a big bowl. Of course, the brown mess was hot mush and tasted like it looked.
Unlike her parents’ family cook (who made the MOST DELICIOUS YELLOW APPLE SAUCE IN THE ENTIRE WORLD), our Mother never added sugar to ease the tartness, but served it plain and hot. After I gagged, I refused to eat it ever again and so did my siblings. Dad always ate it and said he liked it, but I maintain his taste buds weren’t working to full capacity.
I remember begging her to make it like my grandparents’ cook did and THEN I would “eat it all.”
Oops, CLEAN UP in aisle 5.
Well, when I moved away from home, I learned how to dirty a saucepan and skillet. And so far, I haven’t yet felt the need to buy any fancy baloney.