My Mother Was a Terrible Cook

I was thinking the other day, “I’d like some Chop Suey like Mom used to make.  Except, you know, good.”  Jo did not shine in the kitchen.  Her recipes are not recipes anybody would greet with delight. Although in my family’s defense, my cousin Russ who used to be the food editor at the LA Times, says one of the paper’s most requested recipes was Grandma Smith’s cranberry sauce, which always boggles my mind because my memories of Grandma Smith are of her eating raw hamburger and missing part of her thumb which had come off in a basement door incident.

Where was I?  Right, food my mama used to make.

I have no idea why I yearn for this food.  It’s not like I had a happy childhood.  So what draws me back to Jo’s bean soup with dumplings (doughy and terrible) and roast-carrots-and-potatoes (overcooked) and Chop Suey (the Chinese would spit)?  Look, my mom worked six days a week, and for my father, to boot, so it’s not like she had time to scan through Gourmet Magazine or whisk a cream sauce.  The woman was exhausted 24/7, and that was before she got home to me and my brother, fighting and screaming.  (My brother is a lovely man and we’re just fine now, no worries.). And she kept us alive, even if she looked with suspicion on any veg that wasn’t a potato, a carrot, a bean, a celery stalk, or an onion.  And yet, even with the memory of pale gravy and gray meat, every now and then, I start to crave the food of my childhood.  

This week it’s Chop Suey.

I know Chop Suey is not Chinese cuisine.  Most of the blogs I’ve looked at call it Chinese American cuisine which I figure is a cute way of saying, “A bunch of American housewives thought this is what Chinese cooking was.”  That was definitely my mother’s approach.  I think she might have put water chestnuts in, which was a complete waste because my father, brother, and I ate around them.  Otherwise, it was beef broth and beef (tough but cut into small chunks) with mushrooms and onions and celery over those crispy noodles whose name I have forgotten.  But I really loved my mother’s Chop Suey.  If you ignored the meat which was like little pillows of Nerf, the broth and veggies were salty and tasty and the crunchy noodles were divine.  

I think Jo’s Chop Suey is where I picked up my undying love of celery cooked in salty broth.  I put celery in everything; it’s 90% water so it’s non-fattening and it never fails to be unobtrusively delicious.   My basic starter for an meal is celery, onion, and mushroom.  Stir fry?  Sure, celery, onion, and mushroom.  Cashew chicken?  Absolutely, celery, onion, and mushroom.  Noodle soup?  You bet, celery, onion, and . . .   I made brownies the other day and had to restrain myself from reaching for vegetable crisper.  (In my defense, I have other basic combos, like shallots, peppercorns, white wine, and heavy cream, which I could probably live on, but not for Chop Suey.  I’m not insane.)

So I looked up Chop Suey on the net and here’s a fun fact: chop suey appears to be “whatever your mother threw in the pot.”  Seriously, all these food blogs with “My mother’s Chop Suey” are all different.  Plus some of them call for rice.  I was appalled.  Those little crunchy noodles are an essential part of the whole drippy Chop Suey experience.  I love rice, I eat tons of rice, but not with Chop Suey.  My god, what are they thinking?

On the other hand, I could see where my mother’s habit of tossing in a can of Campbell’s beef broth and hoping for the best was not going to cut it.  Neither was dumping all the veggies into the broth and boiling the hell out of them with the meat.  I have some standards.  Plus Chop Suey is an excellent way to get vegetables into me, so in addition to the essential celery, mushroom, and onion, there should be garlic (there should always be garlic), and snow peas, and bok choy (my answer to water chestnuts which I still can’t stand) and possibly some cabbage and a carrot if I have some lying around.  Which is when I realized I was basically making stir fry and then throwing in some beef broth and dumping it all on crispy noodles.  

This is one of the big ah-ha moments from the months-long experiment I’ve been making with meal services:  There are basically only about about a dozen recipes in the world (cooking, not baking) and everything is just a variation on those.  Meat with pan sauce, stir fry, stew, oven roasted veg, you can change some of the ingredients, but it’s pretty much the same recipes over and over again.  So my mother wasn’t that far off the path with her basic repertoire.  

Which brings me back to her Chop Suey.  The problem with messing with a remembered recipe is that then it doesn’t taste like you remembered it.  OTOH, my mother’s Chop Suey was a mixed memory, so what I had to do was isolate the good stuff.  What I really wanted was hot, salty beef broth with celery and mushrooms over crunchy noodles, but if that’s what I made, I wouldn’t like it, it would be too bland.  It had to be hot, salty beef broth with celery and mushrooms and onion and garlic (everything is better with garlic) and maybe oyster sauce instead of the soy sauce I remember my mother pumping into the broth, and possibly some sesame oil.  And marinate the beef and sear it until it’s still rare and then let it rest and finally cut into squares and put it in the finished stir fry so it stays rare.  And add a little cornstarch so the beef broth gets some body to it, although I’ve heard potato starch is even better for thickening so I ordered some of that.  But, I decided, no carrots.  I like carrots but not in Mom’s Chop Suey 2019.  Chop Suey should be pale green and brown, like our living room carpet was, not orange.

So what I ended up with was more Chop Memory than Chop Suey, but it was good.  It made me think of watching black and white TV and the knotty pine cabinets in our old kitchen and that green carpet in the living room, none of which I really wanted to remember, but the broth was salty and the celery was delicious and I could go face down into those crunchy noodles which have no nutritional value whatsoever but who cares?  

Tomorrow I’m making stroganoff, another comfort meal.  My mother never made stroganoff–sour cream was for fancy people–but I made it all the time when Mollie was growing up.  

I wonder if Mollie ever thinks, “I’d like some stroganoff, like my mother used to make, except, you know, good.”  

Anybody have memories of your mom’s cooking you want to share?  Good or bad, we don’t judge.

87 thoughts on “My Mother Was a Terrible Cook

  1. I love celery, too, in soups and stews and chilis and stirfries – just about everything. It used to be a great, cheap way to get some crunchy fibre.

    I don’t know what the price is like in the US, but I just paid 5.98 Canadian (about 4.45 US) for a celery bunch. SIX DOLLARS!!!! Aaargh!!

    1. My mother did not learn to cook from her mother (who never trusted her daughters to do anything). In fact, she did not learn to cook at all. Her chili had no chili powder, her spaghetti sauce had no oregano, basil etc. But she was quite good at baking. Her roast beef would have been brown all the way through (my father took charge of cooking meat), but her apple pie is still my benchmark.

      As for Chinese… La Choy! Perfectly satisfying since you can’t compare it to real Chinese food because the category of “real Chinese food” doesn’t include Chow Mein.

    2. We currently have a celery juice craze going on, that’s why. Healthy, don’tchaknow, only it isn’t especially.

    3. You should be able to grow it if you have a sunny patch in your yard. I’m the same zone as PG and I grow it, when I can find it that is. Also, the home grown stuff keeps longer than store bought.

    4. I was making lasagne the other day, and my friend coming over likes lots of veg (and since I started cooking for a family because the wife doesn’t want her fussy-think 5 going on 50-husband to develop full-on diabetes, I’ve take to making the things he likes and hiding veggies in the meals, and I took that to heart with the lasagne), and I was thinking of adding (among many other veggies to the meat sauce) carrot and celery, I saw the price of celery and realised 6 bucks was too much for celery. CELERY.


      FYI, I don’t use mozzarella or ricotta in my lasagne. I make a bechamel (I make it with potato starch over the flour/butter roux, and then make it slightly cheesy with good sharp white cheddar and parmesan). When I have time I make my own pasta, but I did not.

      Sadly, it was without carrot and celery. I just felt the carrot needed its celery friend to make an appearance, and I’d added diced sweet potato already.

      1. You can make a super easy tomato sauce for the lasagne without meat. If you grate carrots and put them in when you’re simmering the tomato sauce, it will thicken up quite nicely. I’ve never had meat in my lasagne. Maybe my mother taught me that.

    5. Not that much. I just bought some a couple of days ago, and it couldn’t have been more than $2.50, maybe less. I’ll look on Thursday when I go out again.

  2. My mother used to pour Italian Seasonings salad dressing over a chicken and roast it. It was Amazing, and I remember it fondly. Also she used to roast a leg of lamb using the recipe from the NYT cookbook circa 1969, and it had garlic and olive oil and soy sauce and rosemary and it was perfect. I could happily lick that sauce out of the little saucepan it got heated and combined in. With lamb juice it was even better.

    My mum stopped cooking when it was only herself, but she was a cheerful, casually competent cook of unfussy things while I was learning. It made an impression on me.

    1. The lamb one sounds divine. Reminds me of a few Nigel Slater recipes.

      I had a friend allergic to onion and garlic (allergic? Well it seemed to be the trigger to her migraines. I don’t know. I’m not a doctor!) so one Christmas when it was just us, I made a roast pork loin with just soy and toasted sesame oil. It was great.

      Obviously, we had sides.

      We’re not monsters.

  3. Put MSG in everything you cowards

    Very much agree with the gist that most meals are a variation on stir fry, and you just vary how much sauce you put on the thing to determine how soft you want it. My mom tended to cook blander, and also add too much water in order to steam-cook everything in the bulk-cook, so my main innovations have been getting into flavoring things (garlic! onion! cumin! oyster sauce!) and blanching. And I do still steam cook, but since I cook in much smaller portions I can use much less water.

    I learned a masterclass on using frozen veggies (the basic peas/carrots/corn/beans mic) for cheap eating from my mother. Add it to canned soup. Add it to package ramen (also, save the ramen flavor packets for other applications, and just make your own soup using spices). Use it for fried rice, potato salad, or pasta salad. Add some frozen meatballs for protein, or have chicken patties/nuggets on the side.

    The biggest food thing I learned from her, though, is proper from-scratch chinese-style dumplings. And I mean EVERYTHING from scratch. She’d individually roll the peels, and when she got going, could keep up with 3-4 people snatching them up to make the dumplings.

    1. Also, and this might horrify y’all, but she used to bring pink salmon filet home, slather mayonnaise on top (and later, add pickle relish to the mix too), and bake in the toaster oven. Good stuff.

    2. My favorite cheat recipe is a steamable bag of peas and mushrooms in garlic mixed with a steamable bag of wild and brown rice. Done in eight minutes and good all by itself, or put chicken au jus on top of it and die of delicious happiness.

      1. I’ve bought a steamable bag of seasoned quinoa+chopped kale on sale a couple of times. Just add some chopped ham to it after, and it’s basically a kind of fried rice. Or added some canned cream of chicken/mushroom for a not-risotto.

  4. My mother was an okay cook but wasn’t into it at all. My grandmother seemed to enjoy it more, but really I just think she complained less because when she got older she avoided cooking as much as possible. However, her standbys were much better because she made everything from scratch, like tomato sauce, pie crust, soup, etc. When I was living in France in my early 20s, I called my grandmother in the US to ask her how to make soup. She told me, “All soup should have at least three ingredients, and one of them should be celery.”

  5. Hot cheese puff appetizers! She only made them for their annual New Year’s Day party. Wonderful hot, greasy things – rare and delish. Decades later I got the recipe. It’s got like 4 ingredients and you can freeze them and cook a few any time. What was so hard that we could only have them once a year?????? Cookies, every day; cheese puffs are “party food” and once a year. Of course, between the two, I’d rather have home made cookies, so perhaps not complaining.

  6. My mom loved her garden and would tell people that the kitchen was just a shortcut between the front and back garden. Dinner was either seared chops or boiled-to-death mince (ground beef in the US), with a side of mashed potatoes and peas. She inherited her kitchen talents. My cousin still talks about ‘Granny’s Chernobyl Cabbage’. However, to this day my favourite foods are casseroles and stews. With a side of mashed potatoes and peas.

  7. My mother was strictly meat and potatoes. Occasionally she would branch out and make something foreign like spaghetti and meatballs and then out of left field she made a chop suey dish. I remember it was made with hamburger and canned bean sprouts and about a gallon of soy sauce it was that salty. We had it over toast. Rice what is that? She never had a cookbook until I gave her one for Christmas one year. After she passed I got the cookbook (Fanny Farmer) back and for the longest time I could still smell the cigarettes she smoked as she used it. I also left inside the scraps of paper and match book covers she used as page markers. Any way my first Fanny Farmer cookbook (1963) had a chop suey recipe similar to my mother’s but not in the one I gave her. But celery had to be part of trio of vegetables she used in preparing meals. Cream cheese and olives on celery anyone?

  8. Oddly, one of my favorite dinner memories was SOS: ground beef with flour, fry the hell out of it, then add more flour and milk for gravy. Over bread (white loaf). It was salty and crunchy and creamy and basically gravy for dinner. What’s not to like? And soemthing she called Swiss Steak: seasoned flour coating a chopped steak (cheap meat), fry in a bit of bacon fat, then make gravy in the pan. Gravy served separately OR with the meat. Not like chicken fried steak, but… Swiss Steak as in a poor man’s version of Wienner Schnitzel.

  9. My mother was jealous of my father’s ability to cook a steak, but she made the most wonderful deep-fried onions and fries. Also her roast beef with wide egg noodles and hard little dumplings. And my grandmother’s fried bread (we were big on frying).

  10. My Dad did the bulk of the cooking until he died, but never really got the hang of my food allergies, so I don’t necessarily crave those things. I think of him whenever I add celery (which he hated and refused to cook with) to anything, still with an apologetic cringe. I also think of him when I smell coffee or newsprint or hear the threading to All Things Considered on NPR (he was a journalist). Someday the newsprint will be the rare commodity, I suspect.

    My mother’s still around and cooks for me from time to time, something she had to relearn when Dad got sick because he’d been retired and he’d done the cooking. She makes a killer black rice salad. I’d better get that recipe locked down stat!

  11. My mother made chop suey when I was a kid, but I don’t remember what was in it, except it was served with BOTH rice and crunchy noodles. These days, I have no hankering for chop suey, but I do love crunchy noodles. Favorite thing: stir them into melted butterscotch chips (with a tiny bit of shortening to make it soft enough to stir) and then drop them onto a cookie sheet to re-harden. Or chocolate chips, but I like the butterscotch ones better. Nice mix of sweet and salty/crunchy.

    1. My mom made those butterscotch chip and crunchy noodle cookies, but she also added peanuts. I still make them occasionally.

  12. My favorite meals were a casserole called “Lick em good” and my mother’s stir-fry version of Pancit, a Phillipine dish. Lick ‘m consisted of thinly sliced potatoes, layers of creamed corn and browned sausage, and topped with tomato soup (there may be onions in there too). It makes a lot, so I don’t make it often. Meanwhile, pancit was a “whatever is in the fridge” stir fry that was served over noodles. It had to include cabbage, carrots and soy sauce.

    Mom’s specialty – and always on request for Christmas morning – was sticky buns. We’d tear into the stockings while they were baking, and then have a respite from the presents to have sticky buns fresh from the oven.

    My parents also hosted an annual Christmas party full of desserts and caroling. At it’s height, my mother made 25 different cakes and 25 different pies for the occasion. (She actually made more, duplicating some of the popular choices). It was a tour de force of planning and baking for 2-3 weeks ahead of the party.

    My mom had lots of cookbooks, and made notes in them whenever something she tried was well received. “Fred yum!” was a winner, since my dad is a notoriously picky eater. I inherited a bunch of the cookbooks, although I rarely consult with them, since it’s much easier to just go online and search for something to make with the ingredients I have.

    1. Pancit is called “chao mi fen” in mandarin, and I love it! Ever since I learned about having it with black vinegar, I’ve never gone back. Rice noodles, cabbage, carrots, mushrooms, and cooked ground meat. We always made it in giant bulk, heh.

  13. Oh boy. So many bad memories. My brother once called my mother the inventor of Culinary Pyrotechnics. Her specialty was meat charred black on the outside and raw on the inside. We got to be very specialist in delicately slicing off the burned bits to eat and living the raw lump behind.

    For more than a year in elementary school, she sent me off with a lunch that consisted of a piece of bologna tooth-picked around a dill pickle. To this day she insists I loved that lunch. I remember being so very hungry and sometimes still throwing it away because I couldn’t manage it. To this day, both of those food items cause a gag reflex.

    And folks, these were the high points. Until I got to high school, I thought that ‘salad’ was iceberg lettuce chopped and mixed with salt and mayonnaise.

    Ever been served Hamburger Helper without actual hamburger added to it? I can’t even laugh about it. Not even after all these years.

    As she’s gotten older, her favorite thing to do to a recipe is to read it through, toss out anything she deems unhealthy or a ridiculously luxurious ingredient (basically anything with flavor or any kind of appeal or actually fresh) and to either just leave these ingredients out, or substitute insane items instead.

    Pro tip: Frozen spinach is not a substitute for fresh parsley.

    Her Beef Stroghanoff made entirely without butter, sour cream, salt, white wine, beef broth, or even good quality of beef is a concrete grey horror. “What more does the sauce need other than water and flour? So healthy now!” she thinks to herself. “At least it coagulates after being violently overcooked,” she notes with great satisfaction.

    The idea that there are people out there who have fond memories of childhood meals is incomprehensible to me.

    1. I’m sorry, I can’t help laughing at this. I’m sure it was a nightmare to live with, but from the outside it’s really funny. Especially the beef stroganoff.

    2. That was a sympathy like. I hope you’ve been able to make yourself some good food as an adult.

      1. When I went to college, the cafeteria food was marvelous. I think I may have been the only person who felt that way. But really, mmm. I’m not a great cook, mainly because I don’t enjoy it, but I can prepare tasty things. I watched zillions of cooking shows to learn techniques and follow cookbook recipes to the letter.

        If I encounter an ingredient that requires a trip to Nepal to obtain, I don’t make the recipe. Accept no substitutions is my motto. Never deviate from the path. The sub-motto.

        Last night for dinner was roasted poblano tacos from an amazing cookbook, “Tacos, Tortas, and Tamales” by Roberto Santibañez. Yummy.

  14. My maternal grandmother was an excellent cook but she never shared her recipes with her daughters. Maybe it’s because she was an immigrant or because she didn’t follow recipes or just wanted to keep them to herself. One of my cousins has replicated a couple of her recipes and shared them. My mom was not a great cook. Not that it stopped her from making meals for us growing up. I can’t think of a single meal she made that I would make. Hmmmm. Glad I liked to play around with recipes and allow my kids (daughters AND sons) to cook along side me. My recipes have been requested many times.

  15. The only thing she made that I adored was potato salad. I have the recipe but I’ve never made it (it was exhausting work the way she did it, which was maybe once a year). I should dig out her recipe and try it and see if I still even like it.

    She may have been adventurous, but we’d never know because my father only wanted American Male Basics and venturing into pasta (spaghetti or macaroni) was a stretch until he got used to it.

  16. chow mein noodles! Yes, I know them well. We had Chinese food quite often, and fairly authentic, at that, because of a few years spent on Taiwan when I was a kid. Mom made a wicked beef and green peppers, and I’d pick around the green peppers, and it was always topped with chow mein noodles. And you know, I don’t think I have that in the pantry, which must be remedied. My own version uses sweet red peppers, not green because I still don’t like them, and a little ginger. Mom was horrified. Her seasonings cupboard was salt, pepper, minced onion, garlic powder, and bottle of celery flakes that lasted forever. She had it for so long, that when I was sent to the store for a new bottle, I was horrified by the weird bright green color, which I was sure didn’t look anything like what mom used.

    Of course just because she learned to cook a few Chinese staples doesn’t mean she ever took to stir fry. In my mother’s world, vegetables are meant to be cooked to death until they can be gummed instead of chewed. Her parents grew most of their own vegetables, but they were rarely eaten fresh. They were canned to get the family through the winter, so I figure that’s why Mom reacts to firm veggies as if she got a mouthful of gristle.

  17. My mum is a great cook and at 96 years young still makes dinner ever night. I love going to Australia and having one of everything I loved when growing up. Roast leg of lamb with mint sauce, salmon with white sauce, meat pies and sausage rolls, rissoles with mashed potato, peas, and gravy. Damn now I’m hungry.

  18. I have a LiveJournal Blog, dating back to around 2004. I forget just this moment who talked me into starting it. But one (or more) of my posts was about how My Mother Was A Terrible Cook. There was even an exchange with my brother that concluded she could only make Crepes to Die For. I didn’t know what pancakes were until I was about eight, at a cousin’s house. I’ve discussed mama’s cooking on LJ and Facebook, usually around Thanksgiving or Christmas, because we realized that the other thing mama could cook was French Canadian Pork Dressing.

    Wednesdays were spaghetti days, and the sauce and meatballs simmered on the stove all day. The house smelled amazing. Her sauce wasn’t great – too much sugar and tomato paste – but the meatballs were huge. The spaghetti was LaRosa, not Prince, and she hardly ever over-cooked it.

    Despite her lack of cooking acumen, none of us (four boys) grew up as skinny children.

    Oh! Chinese food! Can you say “La Choy?” They made chop suey and chow mein and crispy noodles, and sometimes papa would take us all to a restaurant across the border in Rhode Island. Mama cooked from cans, a lot.

    On another note entirely, my daughter just passed me a small bowl of keto-friendly chicken salsa verde. Mahvelous.

    1. Gary – does hat mean you grew up in Massachusetts? There were a lot of French Canadian pork recipes in my childhood. In addition to the pork dressing there was tourtiere for New Year’s Day and gorton (a pork meat spread) with mustard on a baguette. I disliked all of it as much as my spouse loved it.

      1. Until I was five, Plainfield, CT. Their phonebook was full of Levesques, Daignaults, Brunets, DePaults, et cetera. Then my mother remarried and he was at the Boston Naval Shipyard, so we lived in Methuen, MASS. Then briefly back to Plainfield until we went to Key West, FL for five years.

        I’ve eaten that pork dressing all my life, unless I was at sea. It made mama’s desert-dry turkey edible, and leftovers made great sandwiches.

        1. I can remember at age 6 or 7 going to the shipyard in Boston to greet my father getting off his ship with my mother, brother and sister during the Korean Conflict. Only to discover that he was one of the first to disembark and we missed him. He went home to an empty house and our neighbor drove him back to the shipyard where we finally met. After that we waited at home for him to come with his huge seabag filled with surprises.

          My son was talking the other day about how when his ship was out to sea for awhile and the ship’s kitchen was running out of food the cooks would put anything together for a meal. I never even though of that. Aren’t there supply ships out there?

          1. There ARE! There are supply ships at sea which, weather permitting, can perform an “under weigh replenishment” (UNREP). The last part of my naval career was aboard the USS Puget Sound, a destroyer tender, and we performed many of those, although the majority were small items, fresh fruit, and repair parts delivered by out helicopter.

            I’d be willing to guess that the problem involved the ship’s supply budget, and the lack of funds at the end of the month (or deployment period.) They still have to pay for that UNREP, you see, even though it’s just a transfer of paperwork.

            I was mostly on submarines, and we had a bigger budget per head than most surface ships. Even so, I remember one deployment that was for years thereafter called “the canned ham and lima bean patrol.” And red bug juice (Cool Aid). None of those was a part of my diet the rest of my career.

            Another time, the Powers What Wuz were clearing stocks of Korean War frozen food. Filet Mignon was going for less than half the cost of hamburger patties, so the cooks stocked up. Can you picture sailors whining in the chow line, “Oh, man! Not filet mignon again!”

  19. My mum made something she called ‘carameled carrots’. Took me until I was in my late teens to figure out that she regularly burnt the carrots, and the name was just a cover-up.

    She wasn’t a good cook – had no great interest in it. Plus she had a fussy husband and four small children (two of us fussy), so in the circumstances she did quite well keeping us fed. When the subject of her cooking came up, my father used to hurriedly say, ‘Your mother was a wonderful nurse.’

    1. If I overcook something, I call it “Cajun.” It’s all in how you look at it.

  20. My mum made a tuna casserole that I’ve never been able to replicate, and a pumpkin soup that I’ve put my own spin on – it’s a family favourite, especially over pasta. I also got my cupcake recipe from her, and think of her every time I make cupcakes.

    I made a dairy-free stroganoff last night that was excellent. DH finished off three bowls, and is eying off the leftovers for lunch today, and Eldest Son went through a few helpings. Youngest Son’s verdict was “It’s alright, but I don’t like it. Actually, it’s poison” but then, I was expecting that.

      1. I used coconut cream instead of sour cream, and red wine vinegar. It worked well, and not coconutty. My boys are both allergic to dairy.

        1. Interesting. Did you use a particular brand? I’m just interested because I do cook for people with weird habits and needs. Sometimes just for fun.

          Love your husband loved it.

          1. I tend to prefer the Ayam brand, but any will do at a pinch. As long as it’s got plenty of the solids in it for that creamy texture.

  21. In 1949 my mother divorced my father and decided she needed to learn how to cook.
    So she moved five-year old me and my two year old brother Alex to Paris so she could study at Cordon Bleu.
    I got to see The Red Shoes for my sixth birthday and go to a French nursery school run by nuns. (There was no room for me in the English Speaking first grade.)
    And Mom became a wonderful cook.
    Now the difference between Mom and Julia Child was that Julia had Paul who loved her cooking.
    Mom had us and we Hated her cooking. When Mom made the Beef Bourguignon we thought it gross. My mouth squinched in remembrance when I saw the movie.
    Alex and I wanted what we called “children’s cheese” and Franco American spaghetti.
    Looking back, I feel bad for Mom. However, her second and third husbands loved her cooking skills.
    When we lived in South Africa Mom made soups and lobster Newburgh that I remember loving. And her BeefStroganoff was amazing. At twelve I was more willing to try new food. But to this day I cannot stand Beef Bourguignon.

    1. My mother was always an amazing cook. And the rule was we try everything once. Except the time she apparently served us kidneys (it might have been liver) and my sister and I turned green.

      But everything else we had to eat.

      Once when I was small they had a dinner party and she made a hot chicken curry (hot as in spicy). No doubt we’d already been fed some boring food-for-kids. Being a classy and not-at-all drama queen child, I threw a tantrum and demanded some. Well, no one wants to be left out. So she thought, right, I’ll show you, and gave me some.

      I came back for seconds.

      Anyway, I wonder if your palates hadn’t yet developed or you were missing home, or just your style of food changed dramatically.

  22. My mum was a great cook, simple but everything done well. The kind of food she cooked (and my dad liked) is mostly not what I eat now, but when I sometimes make it for my family, it’s to universal acclaim. Corned beef with mustard sauce, and meatloaf in homemade BBQ sauce and the like.

    My comfort foods though are potato bread (which I mastered as a kid), blackcurrant jam (which I now make every year and share around the family) and this beef and vegetable stoop (to thick to be soup, to thin to be stew) my granny used to make every Wednesday (she lived with us). I have no idea how she did it, but I remember it being delicious. And mum used to make wheaten soda to go with it. Which I used to eat warm, dripping with butter and honey.

    This was a stupid post for me to write. I am doing Michael Mosely’s Fast 800 diet, and now I’m starving.

  23. My mother was a passable cook – she did sturdy Midwestern stuff that fed four kids, but cooked veggies like a true Minnesotan, until they were dead dead dead.

    But as a true Minnesotan, her Hot Dish repertoire was spot on. Her specialty was what we called “goulsh” – leftover road beef, cubed, cooked with cream of mushroom soup, canned button mushrooms, and Minute Rice. She also did a splendid tuna casserole (a necessity for a Catholic family!) and a Chicken Marengo that she made only for special occasions, served over rotini noodles. That last one I might need to replicate.

    1. I’m so sorry, but I’m giggling at your typo, ‘road beef’. Oh, the fabulous images in my head.

      It’s okay, I often typo gingers for fingers. Which makes for some pretty interesting romantic writing if you ask me.

      Just WHAT was he doing with his ginger???

  24. Wow. Just wow. SO MANY people with moms who were bad cooks, like (mostly) my own mother!

    The two things I recall with fondness from her repertoire were egg custard (which was always served when we were sick with any stomach symptoms) and rice pudding, which she made, somehow, from her mother’s recipe. My grandmother (who died in 1929, so I never met her) was living on a farm where a few cows were raised during most of my mom’s childhood, and because it was an area that wasn’t yet electrified, she cooked on a wood stove.

    As a result of that, or also just general principles (“I know how I do this”), her recipes lack exact measurements and oven temperatures, so when I first tried to replicate the dish, I had to do a lot of guessing. (“Rice. Milk. Sugar. A pinch salt. Cook in a hot oven til done.”) I served some to my uncle, who said it was good, but lacked something that his mother’s recipe used to have.

    A few months later he was reminiscing about the cows on that farm, and it came up that they were Jersey cows, and their mom would have to shake up each (homegrown) bottle of milk before pouring the kids some, since several inches of cream would rise to the top of each bottle in the icebox. (A box. With actual ice.)

    I suddenly realized that my grandmother’s rice pudding must have been made with whole milk plus cream, which probably had a lot to do with that certain something that was missing from my own version. Alas, I got health conscious, and never did try to duplicate it. But my mother’s version was (improbably) good.

    1. We were positively SPOILED growing up. My mother could cook everything. Learned a lot of Austrian/European recipes (my dad is Austrian) from my Oma, but was adventurous and she could also bake. My sister is more a baker than me.

      I remember the time my sister went to dinner at her then-boyfriend’s house (this is back in the dark ages), and his mum asked if she’d like lasagne. My sister said, that’s a lot of work. The woman said, oh, no. It’s fine.

      Cue my sister’s horrified retelling of the woman squeezing ketchup on raw minced meat, grating cheese on top, (I shall assume between the layers of pasta sheets) and baking it.

  25. My mother was a very plain cook – meat and potatoes, salt and pepper, onions, celery and carrots. Salads were made with iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers and French dressing. Corn and peas came from cans. But she was a truly inspired baker – napoleons, creme puffs, eclairs, these divine apricot squares, midnight cake (very chocolatey but not too sweet) and on and on…
    My spouse jokes that meals are something my family eats just to get to the dessert.

  26. My mother was a so-so cook, basically meat, potatoes, and overcooked vegetables. (All food had to be dead; to be certain you had to overcook it.)

    The only thing I remember that I could not tolerate was a dish called pumpkin and rice, which she loved. It was the only thing I can remember as a you-are-going-to-sit-there-until-you-eat-it meal. I never was able to finish it (worse than liver and onions)..
    After she died, I searched for the recipe intending to rip it up, burn it, and flush the ashes. I never found it so she must have just made it from memory.

    My father was a pretty good cook. Good with soups, spagetti sauce, and roasts. He didn’t have to kill things twice.

    As for celery, I love it. I use celery leaves a lot in place of cilanto which I don’t like.

  27. My mom cooked because she had to. And my grandmother never bothered to teach her because it was easier doing the cooking herself since she had to produce three meals a day for 10 kids plus any farm hands. But it also meant my mom spent a LOT of time in the kitchen chopping, stirring, and other chores. So she saw how things were done. And Mom was no dummy. We were poor. My dad had been injured in a mine cave in when I was two and between the two of their marriages there were 8 kids to feed. We had a coal stove (think wood stove only coal). So lots of slow cooked food with an eye on when you needed to add more coal. So she made breads, and rolls, and canned peaches and apples and plums. And we grew raspberries, strawberries, rhubarb, vegetables. We had chickens and a pig and a cow. Daddy and the boys always hunted deer, so we had a lot of venison. The food was bland since she only used salt, pepper and a few dried herbs and spices. But the basic ingredients were good.

    And we ate a lot of navy beans with ham hock or salt pork, which I swore I would never eat again in my life. So this week, noticing that I had a batch of ham hock broth in the freezer, I bought a package of navy beans, got out the Instant pot and recreated mom’s navy beans. I added bunches of fresh herbs and grilled some designer franks. My husband said “These don’t taste anything like canned beans. They are great”. Way to go, Mom.

  28. Homemade mac and cheese baked in the oven. But when I was eight she divorced my American father and married an Englishman. Boiled onions and potatoes anyone? Fish broiled in milk? Liver and onions?

    I hated onions for a really, really long time.

    My grandmother, however, made the best potato salad in the world. I model mine after hers and I like it just as much. But I’m off potatoes and grain for the time being. It’s a pity, I love potatoes. Although when I cheat and have toast, it doesn’t taste like I think it should. Maybe I should sprinkle some MSG on it?

  29. My mom was and is a moderately bad cook, although that’s mostly just because she tends to cook things I would never eat. She does make a bangin’ hamburger though, they turn out perfect. When she comes to visit, I have her make me some so I can freeze them to have any time.
    My paternal grandmother was an excellent ‘country’ cook and my fondest food memories relate to her. She always had a garden and forever spoiled me on homegrown produce, especially tomatoes. No tomato today tastes like the huge salted slices of my youth. She made the BEST fried chicken and though I both observed and helped her make it, I cannot replicate it. It wasn’t even that complicated, just breaded with a combo of flour and poultry season then fried in an electric skillet. It remains the food I miss the most. Her coleslaw was also delicious and again, was a homemade dressing that I’m unable to replicate despite knowing the ingredients.

    1. try 00 flour for the chicken, and season with sea salt and white pepper, and whatever herbs or spices she used.

      Do you remember the oil? That might help.

      And, i’d go for organic, free-range chicken, too. Dredge in the flour/spice mix and sit. If she used egg first to dip the chicken in, try that.

      Good luck!

      Of course, it could be just because of the memories attached to those precious moments.

      1. All good suggestions! I hadn’t thought about it, but the chicken back then probably /was/ different from what we have now so free range would be closer. And now that you mention it, the oil probably started out as solid Crisco which I haven’t tried.
        I recently had an epiphany about the slaw dressing: she was a die-hard Miracle Whip woman, whereas I won’t touch that stuff with a ten foot pole. But of course subbing mayo for MW would hugely change the taste of the dressing.

  30. My grandmother was a terrific cook who never wrote any thing down. If you wanted to learn how she made anything, you had to watch her make it and write down what she was doing and measure how much she used of each ingredient (because “until it looks right” is meaningless unless you are there to see how “right” looks). My oldest sister was able to do that with Grandma’s blintzes, but a lot of her specialties are now lost. By the time I ( her youngest grandchild ) came along, she didn’t have the stamina to make some of the more labor-intensive things. Every time I begged her to teach me how to make strudel, she’d say that stretching the dough out to cover the tablecloth was too much work and she wasn’t going to do it. But she must have shared some recipes with my mother (her DIL) because I know that my Mom didn’t learn the cabbage borscht my father was addicted to from her mother.

    And now my Mom is gone, too. The sad part about that is that after she had a stroke, she developed memory loss and cooked less and less. And the one time I tried making her Beef Stroganoff ( no canned soup involved for either of us) it just tasted like it was missing a key seasoning or two. Maybe my brother Peter can help me recreate it. Since he’s 10 years older than me, maybe he remembers being in the kitchen while she made it.

    I had to laugh while reading about cravings for unauthentic Chinese food. When my sister was pregnant with her younger daughter, she had the worst case 0f all day morning sickness on record. Not only could she not stomach most of her usual diet, but if you ate something on the list of forbidden foods and she could smell it, that would trigger her vomiting, too. The only thing she wanted was Egg Foo Yung. Since she lives in Manhattan, where you can get anything delivered, this shouldn’t have been difficult. But she didn’t want good Egg Foo Yung, she wanted the pasty gray stuff they served in 1960 suburban Milwaukee. I’m sure we could have found a recipe in an old Betty Crocker cookbook that would have sufficed, but since she couldn’t stand the smell of it cooking, that didn’t occur to us. So we tried everyplace on the upper west side until we found the closest match. In her neighborhood it turned out to be a place where the menu was half Chinese and half Cuban.

  31. My mom is a good cook. She started out OK and got better and better. When my dad was gone (TDY, meaning he was flying around somewhere else) we would have fish sticks and tater tots, which we loved. Or, even better, Kraft dinner mac and cheese baked with hot dogs. So good!
    That was long ago. She’s a meat, 2 veggies and a salad cook, and famous for her pie. I like to cut a bunch of stuff up in a stir fry, I think she has a more delicate sense of taste than I do.
    What ever phase of life we were in, we ALWAYS sat down at the set table together for a meal, where we would chat.

  32. My mom was a 1970s gourmet (beef wellington! baked alaska!) and loved to entertain, probably because before she remarried, she worked several jobs and raised 5 kids pretty much on her own. My stepdad encouraged her to join clubs (bridge, bowling, cooking) and they all ended up having gatherings at our house. She even hosted wedding receptions for her friends’ kids at our place.

    Once, she caught the kitchen on fire and the whole neighborhood ended up on our lawn watching the spectacle. It’s family lore that one of the gawkers looked around and said, “Alice will do anything for a party.” I sure miss her.

  33. Chicken cacciatori; liver and onions with scalloped potatoes and coleslaw; spaghetti and meatballs with garlic toast and green salad; tuna casserole with potato chip topping; American cheese toasted sandwiches and tomato soup for Saturday lunch; artichokes with warm butter for dipping served on spread newspaper. All homemade — except for Chun King with the three cans taped together. I was in charge of salad dressing: dried seasonings in a special jar; oil up to a line; vinegar up to its line; water up to, yes, a third line. And then shake shake shake to emulsify, my favorite part. Hidden Valley Ranch Dressing was new and daring.

    1. Gosh I remember the Chun King 3-can pack and the salad dressing (with it’s special cruet!)

  34. I’m sitting in my childhood living room right now, as my mom is still hopping with a walker and needs a fair amount of help. (Her reconstructive ankle surgery went perfectly, so now it’s just a matter of healing. She’s getting pretty cranky about having to spend most of the day in a recliner with her foot up though. Very much looking forward to July!)

    She always worked full-time, so I am just grateful that she put decent food on the table every night. And that she did not believe in overcooking vegetables. She was a pretty good cook. Her spaghetti sauce was a tour de force. We ate it with capellini instead of regular spaghetti noodles, which I still don’t like. (Worms!)

    The one failure I remember was the time she made liver. I’m sure it set me on the path of becoming a vegetarian. (I mean, it was probably good, if you like liver.)

    What I remember particularly is the special meals we had. Flank steak, which I thought was the fanciest thing you could have. Whole steamed artichokes with hollandaise sauce when the price was reasonable. Strawberries in puff pastry cups. (Frozen dough that magically went from a flat disc to a cup!) Pastries from the local bakery (always eclairs and napoleons).

    Once I was old enough, I started helping start/make dinner. My specialties were real macaroni and cheese (bechamel sauce, hand-grated cheese, etc) and roasted pork loin.

    We also went out to dinner regularly. There was a local Szechuan restaurant where I learned to love kung pao chicken. And a fancyish Italian restaurant with white tablecloths and professional waiters who were so kind to us as we learned how to behave in a grown-up restaurant.

    So basically my mom taught me to cook real food and appreciate other well-cooked food.

    I can’t complain.

    1. I forgot her creme caramel! Made for parties, but we always got to have some.

  35. My mother was also a terrible cook. In her defense, her own mom never taught any of her kids–I guess it was just easier to do it herself. And my grandfather was very much a meat and potatoes man. (After he died, my grandmother became a vegetarian and remained so until the end of her days.)

    Both my parents worked a lot, so my mom relied heavily on those miracle inventions of Shake N’ Bake, Minute Rice, and yes, La Choy. Although ironically, since my dad was from NYC, we actually knew the difference between that and real Chinese food. Her pot roast could have sunk a battleship, it was so heavy. Don’t even get me started on the meatloaf. Bizarrely, she had two things she cooked extremely well–spaghetti sauce and lasagna. (She’s Jewish, not Italian. No idea where these came from.) I’ve tried my whole life to replicate hers and mine are never as good.

    On the other hand, I became a really good cook in self defense. Each of us kids had to cook one night a week from about the time we were ten. One of my sisters always made hot dogs. The other made Spagetti-O’s (orange fake spaghetti that came in a jar). I made chicken dishes with wine. My dad used to call me the Galactic Gourmet, because I read a lot of Sci Fi and taught myself exotic cookery.

    When I came home from college after the first semester, I walked into the kitchen and the whole family was there. My dad said loudly, “Thank god. Debbie is back. We can eat again.” My mother was standing right there. Why they aren’t divorced I don’t know.

    She can still make a better lasagna than me, though.

    1. I can teach you some lasagne tricks (tricks?? I mean long arse ways of making things from scratch…but there are some things you can do to bring on your lasagne game).

      1. I learned how to make lasagne from helping out in the school canteen. The canteen lady at my son’s primary school is awesome, and makes lasagne from scratch to sell for lunches.

  36. My mother was a reasonable cook, though by the time I was in college she was cutting down on salt (also every other seasoning). She’d try recipes from various sources — I still occasionally make her enchilada casserole (filling is hamburger and chopped onion in canned tomato sauce topped with cheddar cheese, so it’s basically a hamburger dish and not exactly within waving distance of Mexican cuisine). My brother is still horrified by her attempt at hamburger pizza — hamburger mixed with red pizza sauce, molded into a round with a dam around the edge, topped with more sauce and melted cheese — but I used to make a version of that which my cousins and I liked very well. Her veggies often came out of cans and were cooked until everyone was at the table — we were anti-veg until introduced to Chinese stir-fry! Lots of stuff was very overcooked. However, in her defense, she’d learned to cook in Alaska with lots of canned food, and went on to spend a couple of years first in the Navy and then as a Navy wife, two on Guam soon after the end of WWII and two in occupied Germany in the early 1950’s — THAT was when she went to a food safety lecture by an Army quartermaster sergeant on dairy cattle (many tubercular) and post-war dairy management (pails of milk at the side of the road). We got butter and cheese from Scandinavia and didn’t see fresh milk or ice cream until we were back in the States. She was never again willing to eat any meat that wasn’t Very Well Done.

  37. Oof so many things. My mother has and had many faults, but her ability to cook was never one of them. Lamb chops with mint jelly, creamed potatoes and peas, pecan and pumpkin and apple and strawberry-rhubarb pie, Texas sheet cake, stir-fried chicken and vegetables in oyster sauce (the real deal) and homemade pork wonton, lasagna she used to sell by the tray, cornbread sage stuffing in the only moist turkey I’ve ever had, flank steak, fried hush puppies with molasses, ham hocks and beans, five spice chicken, fried chicken and biscuits with white gravy, fudge and a half-dozen different kinds of Christmas-only cookies, cabbage rolls, stuffed peppers (because it was the 70s), zucchini and other varieties of quick breads, molasses lace cookies I can taste melting on my tongue right now. She taught me to appreciate fresh vegetables and how easily they can be ruined, as well as how to doctor sub-par produce to make a nice side dish with onions, celery, butter and bacon. When I was sick, she’d make me a version of blancmange for which I’ve never found an accurate recipe and she can no longer remember how to make. The only things she’s ever served I had no interest in eating were sauteed chicken livers, liver and onions, and menudo, all of which my stepdad loved. Me, not a fan of organ meats. But damn now I’m hungry.

  38. My mom was a really great cook, everything made from scratch. I miss her. Sons miss her cookies.

  39. My mom was a pretty good cook for many things, but she tended to lean toward cheap, fast and filling (four boys!) Minute Rice and Jello were staples. Vegetables and fruits came from the freezer or a can. She had a recipe for Irish-Italian spaghetti that was basically condensed tomato soup and condensed cream of mushroom soup over noodles – ugh!

    But to this day I still make her macaroni and cheese and people always take seconds. I’ve never been able to recreate her cinnamon rolls, which makes me sad. And I try not to make it often, but her peanut butter fudge is to die for.

  40. Ooh, this brings back memories. Both good and bad. One memorable Christmas, we had one course of mains (moist roast turkey with excellent home-made stuffing) and six courses of dessert. Mum does an excellent pavlova, crunchy on the outside and soft inside, smothered in cream and berries, and a pineapple trifle that’s still my favourite dessert. And fantastic biscuits, fudge slice and fruit cake.

    She’s a good cook, but growing up, most of our dinners were grilled meat – grilled in the oven not the barbeque – with spuds, carrots and a green vegetable, all heavily salted, served with pepper and butter and no gravy. It was just what people ate in rural New Zealand in the 70s and 80s. The occasional curry was a treat, made with sausages or boiled eggs and tinned curry powder, and she did a mean mince stew, which was basically steamed minced meat with veges, dried herbs, tomatoes and onions. I loved it as a kid but I’d find it boring as now.

    I’ve turned vegetarian and I’m a lazy cook, so a lot of my meals are tinned beans, a jar of pasta sauce, extra herbs/spices and a lot of veges. I can cook good food from scratch, I just don’t want to after a long day at work. I don’t blame my parents’ generation for their quick boring food, considering how hard they worked. I’m just lucky that 30 years later good pasta sauce is much easier to come by.

  41. I think of my mom (and myself) as decent enough but plain cooks. Which is why the universe gave me a daughter who loves to do elaborately decorated baking. We’ve got a steep learning curve going on in my house right now…

    My Dad is a meat and potatoes guy so when I was a kid in the 70s, that’s what we ate. Mom was the stay at home mom who baked cookies and bread weekly. I loved her grilled cheese w/ Campbell’s tomato soup lunches as a kid but the ones she makes now aren’t the same. Campbell’s changed the recipe for the soup for one thing.

    I’ve got her recipes for lasagna, which my daughter loves, my son hates and my husband can’t eat (gluten and dairy issues); turkey carcass soup; rhubarb pie; and Hawaiian porkchops – pork chops overcooked with pineapple chunks, green pepper and onion chunks in a tomato/mustard sauce, served over overcooked rice. She cut that one out from the newspaper.

    She also did a LaChoy chop suey thing, again served over rice but with the crunchy noodles on top, like a garnish. And I used to pick out the water chestnuts but that was to eat them first. I still love them but it’s really hard to find them grown anywhere other than China and I don’t trust their produce and regulations.

    I also know my Mom’s secret for her amazing cookies – bacon grease. Mom cooked bacon in the oven using the broiler and the bacon grease went into a can in the fridge to solidify. It was “clean” fat in that it didn’t have bits in it. So she’d use it to bake. Her Mom did something similar.

    1. The Hawaiian porkchops have gotten better, by the way. I tweaked the recipe and friends and my family love it. There’s a version of it in the station cook book for my local fire department that came from us. And it also works well with chicken.

  42. I’ll just refer people to the “70s Dinner Party” Twitter account. In my mother’s defense, everybody was cooking and serving this stuff. Maybe there’s a reason I was so thin. And then I grew up and learned some basics of real cooking from a couple of chefs and life got better.

  43. (-: Very late to the party, but food brings back such strong memories for me. My mom and dad were both decent cooks; my mom worked at a local deli, so even when we had take-out, it was often cooked by Mom. Her fried chicken in the electric skillet was so good (with potato salad, vinegared cukes and home-grown tomatoes, most of the time), and her tuna casserole was so fulfilling (topped with crushed saltine crackers).

    But, she wasn’t a great teacher; no patience for teaching us. So, before summer vacation one year, she hand wrote a recipe book for us, and left the cooking guidance up to my dad, who taught us how to cut and brown onions (the basis for almost everything except the macaroni salad, I think). I can’t remember why he had time to supervise; I think he was working at the post office. Most of the meals were cooked in 30 minutes, and then could be eaten in 15. I do remember having to eat a batch of cinnamon chili because I’d mistaken the McCormick’s cinnamon for the McCormick’s chili powder.

    I can still see that notebook with her looping, Palmer-influenced handwriting. We had a housefire when I was in college, but I think the notebook was rescued . . . I should ask my sister to get it scanned into the computer to hand down to future generations.

    (-: Oddly enough, I think we only have one “family recipe” — a healthy pancake mix from my great-grandmother (Dad’s mother’s mother), probably from the turn of the century during one of the great health crazes that swept the nation (along about the time Kellogg’s was formulating his cereal, I suppose). Good stuff, and something my daughters ask for from time to time.

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