Community Greens

People of all colors discussing evergreen ideas.

Growing Up Morrisania: Slaving Over A Hot Stove

My mother was a single, working parent. Slaving over a stove wasn’t an option available to her. Her mother wanted more for her than “domestic” work so Cornelia cooked a lot of  meals and washed a lot of laundry so Ruth could stay in school and get a job in “business”.

So grandma did most of the cooking and all dinners were eaten at the table with all family members present. There was a delicate balance in keeping hungry kids waiting, keeping food hot and waiting for a tired parent to get home. Grandma was a master at it as she carefully put her pall mall in the ash tray on the table and rinsed her hands and dried them on her blue and white apron before she gently stirred a sauce or attended a pot. We didn’t have a dining room, just an eat in kitchen with a glorious ball and claw foot oak table generally covered with oil cloth with some gaudy kitchen pattern. Holidays an extra leaf or two would appear magically to extend the table so we could accommodate the bounty of food.

There were generally no supper guests for holidays but grandma, and mom too, would regularly feed someone at the table after we, the kids, had eaten. There were no second helpings. You got your portion when the food was plated, but one usually got more of their favorite without the others complaining. Without saying, we all had different favorites. There was always dessert. Yes, every night. Usually something simple with the more elaborate things reserved for special occasions. I believe grandma went out of her way to always make dessert for mom feeling she deserved it for being in business in the garment industry. Sunday dinners were great and, every now and then, grand affairs that included roasts and luxurious deserts left over from a Saturday night dinner party Grandma had prepared for someone somewhere else. Grandma made really wonderful vegetable dishes and deserts and I still lovingly remember her creamed spinach and lemon meringue pie.

I don’t think mom minded not cooking more. She certainly likes good food. I believe had she the opportunity, she would whip up all sorts fancy things every chance she got but she was never taught to cook. She was sort of a reverse Cinderella. Cooking isn’t  glamorous but there is lots of love in it or there should be. Grandma died when I was 10 so we were relegated to the burgeoning fast food generation. With 4 kids, Mom took advantage of the latest convenience foods and we ate lots of beans and franks out of old pie plates while watching Rawhide on TV from chairs turned backwards. Mom liked Arthur Treacher’s Fish & Chips and would splurge every now and then. More often it was fish sticks and French fries heated in the oven.

Convenience food now, fast food was coming. The trend had begun, and was speeded up by the civil rights movement and new found freedoms. Especially freedom from traditional roles like who wore the pants and who wore the apron. Canned, frozen and instant foods were supplanting the all types of things and by the late 60’s Black Panthers were feeding children in their landmark Breakfast Program because they weren’t getting fed at home while America was serving Tang to astronauts. It became socially inappropriate to slave over anything, even the household stove and McDonald’s went from being an occasional burger to being included in regular “meal planning”.

Red meat remained master of the menu though and cooks at home devoted the lion’s share of kitchen time to preparing meat dishes. Vegetable side dishes, once specialties with interesting combinations and seasonings cooked with love and care, became grey green beans and mushy carrots. Vegetables came colorlessly from cans of  salted water and no one wanted to eat them, especially the parents who had grown up with fresh vegetables they had peeled and snapped and chopped as kids. There were folks, who missed vegetables, and added bacon bits and all sorts of things to canned vegetables but when you start with such a compromised food, it’s really hard to make it tasty again. Vegetables became casualies in the food wars.

Candied yams, glazed carrots and creamed spinach became something you had for Thanksgiving rather than something that made regular dinner appearances. Even frozen vegetables, which were a little better, we’re seldom turned onto something interesting. You had to thaw them before you added them to anything and that seemed to defeat the purpose of having them conveniently frozen. Gone was the notion of main dish and main course. Modern dinners became whatever was on your plate. And they’re were no second helpings because you put everything on your plate you wanted the first time, which was often too much, because no one wanted to go back into the kitchen. If you wanted a home cooked meal, and could afford it, you ate out. But lots of people couldn’t afford it and they still ate out and what they ate/eat, fast food, is no where near the rich, wholesome food you could get at home.

So here we are. Satisfy your cravings for salt, sweets and fats with supersized portions delivered to you in the blink of an eye. Take a couple of 4 oz. “meat” patties, put them on a bun with lettuce, tomato, mayonnaise, ketchup, add fries and a soft drink and call it a meal and day. Honestly, it was never like that growing up in Morrisania.

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