The smell of fresh sheets and morning baking have always been a clincher for me as well as the sweet combination of Chanel #5, leather and cigarettes on the cold night air. These are scents, some bitter sweet, that are sure to send my mind racing back over the years to childhood. At this moment the house is redolent of pine, chocolate, almond extract and Christmas cookies. I’ve never been a big one for sweets, swinging toward the other end of the palate by preference but I do put on a Christmas spread to die for. After all I am my mother’s daughter.
My mother seemed to lead two lives when I was a child. She was our mother but she also had a separate secret (to us) life that took up large portions of her time. She would come in very late at night and I remember waking up to her kiss on my cheek. The holy trinity of leather, smoke and perfume would assure me that she was home at last and it wasn’t just a dream. In the morning, if she was awake before us, there would always be something good going on the stove or in the oven. It was the best smell in the world to wake up to. The kitchen was always where my mother was at her best. She was focused and in control. No matter what else happened in our lives or in the world, what came out of the kitchen meant love.
I learned to can, to bake and to cook from my mother (trust me there is a difference between the three). She never really told me much of what to do but instead set an example that I could follow. There was always a lot of work to do especially in the late summer and fall. Every canning season it was my job to stuff the pickle jars because my hands were the smallest. I learned to pit the stones out of cherries with a bobby pin (sigh….thousands upon thousands of cherries). I remember the taste of apples peeled, sliced and mixed with sugar, spices and cornstarch sitting in the old turkey roasting pan waiting to fill up pie shells heading for the freezer. On cold winter days the smell of apple pie would fill up the kitchen with Indian Summer days.
I’ve blanched peaches, pears and tomatoes. I’ve complained about the bitter reek of cooking beets and burnt my tongue on atomic spoonfuls of strawberries, sugar and pectin. I’ve strained grape skin from juice for jelly and chopped garlic and onions for chutney. I’ve eaten left over pie dough spread with butter and sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar after watching it bubble up in the oven as I anticipated the taste of my very own creation. I can tell by eye if that’s a cup of butter or a bit less. I know what to do with lumpy gravy (other than throw it out). I can cook an entire 5 course meal from scratch, dessert and all, without a recipe in sight. Although I do have a fantastic collection of recipes bound, newspaper leafed or hand written if you’re looking for something special. I know how much "an egg of butter" is and how hot is hot when you need a "slow oven". If I had to I could make a week’s worth of meals out of 2 pounds of ground beef and a bit on the side.
Cooking is one of those acts that needs to be practiced to be learnt. It is one thing to relate the theory and a totally different thing to apply it. I have learned some things through the application over the years. Always check to make sure there aren’t any toast crumbs in the butter before you start to cream the sugar into it. You can make breakfast, lunch and dinner with eggs no matter what your child says. An unwatched pot will boil over…. especially if it’s filled with something that burns easily, smokes a lot and will be difficult to clean. And if you’re cooking for company something will always go wrong (usually to the delight of the family dog).
But the basic lessons that I learned from my mother still remain these many moons later. I don’t measure for the stuff I make all the time like chocolate chip cookies, apple crisp or icing. My freezer contains a variety of selections, asparagus, apples, tomatoes (all from my own yard), ready for a quick addition to any recipe. My macaroni and cheese is homemade as well as my pancakes. The crock-pot is a great friend and my gas stove is a dream. Birthdays are a time for kitchen extravagance and Christmas means a veritable plethora of baked goodies that with any luck and a bit of scheduling can last past New Years.
I do some things a little differently. I don’t pass my yolks from shell to shell to separate the white from the gold. I hold the yolk in my (soap washed and very clean) hand leaving the white to drip out below. I’ve never been able to cook a turkey in a brown paper bag, I use a roasting pan and I’m just fine. And I will never, despite my mother ominous predictions when these items were rejected, make my own ketchup, vibrant dyed green relish or zucchini bread.
There is no secret Chanel, smoke and leather world for me but I’m still my mother’s daughter. Last week my oven housed pot roast with gravy and biscuits, roast chicken and stuffing, apple crumb and lemon meringue pies, while (separate) pots of chocolate fudge and garlic mashed potatoes crowned the stove top. This week it’s 20 dozen Christmas cookies of a wide variety along with almond and peppermint bark. When my son rises in the morning they’ll be something on the stove or in the oven, I haven’t decide yet.
He’ll head out the door with a full belly and a full heart because what flows out of my kitchen in a rich aroma of cream, butter and sugar dust is the physical manifestation of my love. You can see it, smell it and taste it. There’s no denying that it’s there and best of all there’s always enough to go around, with seconds if you’d like.