Looking at my heroic own wife, now a mother twice over, with babe in arms, I reflected on the obvious fact of how "mom" is in the beginning food and sustenance.
Moms do so much more, of course, and "outdoing yourself" need not even refer to cooking. (By my own choice, I do a good part of the cooking in our apartment.)
But I've been wanting to record some family history for some time, and I got to thinking about who cooked what in my childhood, all of the food cooked by mothers, with only a few exceptions. I was astonished how well I remember the specific smells and tastes, even as I feel some things slipping away.
("Just like Proust's madeleine", I should say here, if I wanted to appear deep.)
This stuff should be written down, somewhere. Eventually, recipes should be recorded, reconstructed.
Any appreciation of meals cooked by my mother and grandmothers over the years has to start with the first woman in my life, the one who, not least, packed my lunches every day for over ten years. Sparing me from a fate worse than death -- the American institutional school lunch -- especially the dreaded "Egg McJefferson", which made a rotating appearance in the form of an aluminium tin filled with some sort of overcooked crud, black at the corners. And sparing me from school-lunch vegetables, which in this era in the USA were ketchup and french fries.
My mom's lunches were nutritious and assembled with love. Despite my legendary morning crabbiness, she never failed to pack that brown bag. She could have easily snapped, pack your own and left it at that. Many would.
When it came to the vegetable du jour in my mom's bag lunches, even the Savoy cabbage was considered tradeable. The other kids derided it in jest as "purple kohlrabi", but I think they sort of assumed the Rikkens were Europeans and ate a lot of weird vegetables like endive, so it wasn't a big deal.
My favourite was always a sandwich of brown bread from a can (I am not making this up) with cream cheese. Usually there was a whole grain sandwich with cold cuts and cheese and sprouts. I acquired a taste for mayonnaise and hot pepper sauce that lasts to this day.
For dinner, Mamma had maybe 30-50 "bread and butter" dinner dishes. Enough to never get boring. Chicken in a creamy tomato sauce. Chicken almond ding. Jambalaya. Gumbo. Flank steak teriyaki. Fondue nights. Later, meat fondue nights (boiling oil over Sterno). Taco nights.
I am guessing that a lot of it was infused with a 1970s cosmopolitan spirit, healthful lifestyles. This was the time when people in DC were probably first discovering tabouleh, shiitake mushrooms, hummus. There wasn't that much pot roast or apple pie, which was fine by me.
We made cookies on holidays with Mamma -- snickerdoodles and mincemeat cookies -- and it was a shared activity. In general, the baked goods supply was grandmother territory. Again, as it should be, in my opinion.
Interestingly, both my grandmothers had a repertoire of dishes with no overlap. I wonder how it developed. They weren't over for each other's house for dinner, I don't think. Didn't they occasionally clip the same recipes? Kringel, the traditional sweet pretzel-shaped raisin bread eaten at birthdays, was perhaps the only thing both made.
My paternal grandmother Memme was more of the traditional baker. In her suburban Virginia Formica kitchen, full of comforting rounded corners and chrome dials, she turned out goodies the likes of some of which you can't find anywhere today. For all I know, these might have been common things in Estonian cafes in the 1930s -- sweet flaky sour cream rings, Aleksandri kook (kind of like a shortbread sandwich with raspberry jam and topped with lemon flavoured glaze), savoury pastries that covered the whole baking sheet, usually carrot and cabbage. I'm sure I've left out something -- yes, another one was cottage cheese cake, again square-shaped. I wasn't fond of the corners and edges, which were too bready and thick, but the center pieces were moist and delicious. Everything seemed to be scented slightly with cardamom.
But that's not right. My maternal grandmother Vanaema also worked the oven. For example, she was the only one in our family to make black bread, that most Estonian of baked goods -- used a sourdough starter yet it was sweet. Occasionally today a restaurant will serve bread like that, but I haven't located it in stores. And at Christmas, there would be sugar cookies and gingerbread cookies galore. And there was English Muffin loaf -- a good bread that was especially good hot (more than most breads). You couldn't call it white bread, there was something grainy in the crust. Vanaema tended to be more progressive, with more American cakes, spring mold type affairs like double chocolate cake. I assume these were 1950s American recipes. Memme also had a pineapple Jello cream cake and a kiwi Jello topping tart from the same canon.
(Now that I think of it, the pineapple Jello cream cake (I can taste it and see it, but am not sure if this is the right description) might have been made by Vanaema on occasion, too.)
At dinner, Vanaema shone with a green bean-beef-cream of mushroom casserole with -- the best part -- french fried dehydrated onions in a can. Paahdettu sipuli can be had from Finland so I have made this a couple times here.
Memme had an array of labour intensive dishes like stuffed cabbage rolls (the usual, but the tomatoey sauce was better than anything I have had in Estonia). Kotletid, too, of course. Unlike her baked goods, these dishes you can find today in a recognizable form in any baar or söökla, except these were home-cooked par excellence.