November 23, 2000
My Mother’s Kitchen: A Natural Disaster Area
My mother had a green thumb. Too bad she employed it in the kitchen, not the garden. To her credit, she was such a good housekeeper, you could have eaten off her floors. Which, unfortunately, was preferable to eating off her plates.
There are people, I'm aware, who are terror-stricken at the mere thought of visiting a dentist. I, however, who am as prone to fear and panic as anyone and more than most, can snap my fingers at the drillmaster. It's all a matter of early conditioning. For compared to some of the culinary disasters concocted by my mother, root canal isn't all that threatening. In fact, many was the time I used to wish I had anything, including cotton wadding, to nosh on, so long as it hadn't been prepared by you-know-who.
We had a weekly dinner schedule in our house. Monday, we dined on meatloaf or lamb chops; we could tell them apart because the chops had one big bone, and the meatloaf had hundreds of tiny ones. On Tuesday, we had salmon patties. On Wednesday, we'd receive a care package from the local deli. Thursday, we had tuna fish and leftovers. Friday was our night for boiled chicken and barley soup. After all these years, I don't recall what, besides indigestion, we had on the weekend.
If my mother could be said to have had specialties, they would have been her Tuesday and Friday night offerings. I don't know who first invented the salmon patty, but I suspect he must have been related to the shmo who dreamed up chipped beef on toast. My mother used to sweat over those darn salmon patties, which didn't help their flavor any, but probably didn't hurt, either. At dinner, she would glower at me as I studied the orange-and-yellow creations, trying to determine, in "20 Questions" fashion, whether the objects would qualify as animal, vegetable or mineral.
My mother would remind me on such occasions that children were starving in Europe. I would urge her to mail my dinner to Poland. The nice part about my plan was that the patties wouldn't have required wrapping. Put a stamp on one of those babies and it could have been mailed to starving children on the moon.
As if Tuesday night weren't hardship enough, on Wednesday my lunch bag would contain a salmon patty on stale white bread. Go try to swap one of those for a cupcake! On Wednesday, believe me, I was quite prepared to keep the salmon patties and mail my mother to Europe.
It was on Friday, though, that she truly outdid herself. There are people, I understand, who absolutely adore barley soup. Which only proves, as the missionary said to the cannibal chief, that there's no accounting for taste.
I was able to hold a spoonful of barley soup in my mouth for a remarkably long time. I could probably have kept it in there for a month, if one can possibly survive a month without swallowing. Actually, I would eventually swallow the soup; that is, the liquid portion. I would manage this by slowly and ever so carefully filtering the liquid through my teeth. This would eventually leave me, though, with a mouthload of barley. I would sooner have swallowed hemlock. After about half an hour, my parents would finally cave in. The soup would be removed from my presence and the entree would be served. It is hard to describe boiled chicken to those whom fate has spared. But such a chicken, one can safely assume, doesn't get to go to barnyard heaven.
It always seemed to me that the Allies missed a golden opportunity to end World War II long before 1945 rolled around. It would have meant sneaking my mother into the kitchen of the German High Command. As I see this daring plan taking shape, by Tuesday night, there would have been a vague, but general, queasiness among the various field marshals. By Wednesday, when Goebbels and Goring discovered salmon patty sandwiches in their lunch bags, morale would have begun plummeting. And, by Friday evening, when Der Fuhrer himself would have been sitting with a mouthful of barley, while my mother noodged him about all the starving children in Milwaukee, you could have started the countdown to unconditional surrender.