Boarding House Kitchen
from Chicken Every Sunday: My Life with Mother’s Boarders by Rosemary Taylor, 1943
But there was nothing harum-scarum in the kitchen. The housework might be neglected but never the cooking. No matter how good the cook was (once we had one who had formerly worked for the King of Sweden and had come to Tucson to visit a tubercular brother), Mother was out there in the kitchen telling her how to do it, superintending, if not doing, the actual cooking.
No dish came on the table without her tasting it, giving it some touch that made it different, exciting. A tomato salad might be two slices of tomato on a leaf of lettuce to some. But to Mother it was a tomato cut in eights and swirled into a rosette, garnished with a ball of cottage cheese, strips of bell pepper, a piece of celery heart, and for dressing, the most super-scrumptious mayonnaise, the kind that’s made slowly and lovingly, the oil poured in drop by drop. A baked apple had to be baked with a spoonful of brown sugar and marmalade in its center. String beans were cut sliver thin, cooked in chicken soup or liquor from the ham. Corn was buttered, salted, the grains slit, before it ever came on the table. And Mother’s stuffed baked potatoes – my mouth waters at the thought. The outer skins scrubbed to whiteness; the potato scooped out after baking and the insides of the skins buttered, salted, peppered; then the potato, enriched with cream, butter, seasonings, stuffed into the skins again. More butter on the top, salt and pepper. Into the oven once more and out again, a last garnish of two sprigs of parsley and a dash of paprika. Oh, heavenly baked potato, to be devoured to the last bit, the buttered, crackly skins the best of all.
Mother was, and is, an utterly divine cook. It isn’t that I’m her daughter. It isn’t just a nostalgic backward look at my childhood. But just as there are artists who paint, sing, so there are also artists who cook. There are Carusos, Pavlovas, and Michelangelos. There is also Mother over the cookstove. And like any artist she needed a public. She had it in the boarders. The curtain went up three times a day, and she took her applause in the chorus of appreciation and also in the visible poundage that went on the eaters.
Father certainly was an example of what good cooking could do. One hundred and forty pounds when she married him, Father went up and up and up to 220. Father used to complain though that steaks were not so good as when they were first married. Whenever he said this, a queer little smile would go over Mother’s face. Of course when Mother had just Father, she always gave him the filet. Now the children got it, or a boarder.
Mother cooked by instinct, and it was very hard to get a recipe from her, for her system was to take a little of this and a little of that. I used to feel sorry for our servants when they tried to follow her directions. She knew so exactly what she wanted but was no good at communicating it. Nor could she leave a task to anyone. She hovered about and made people nervous. It usually ended with the maids doing the housework and Mother doing the cooking.
She’d say, “Now tonight we’ll have some good old Virginia spoon bread.”
“What’s the recipe?” the cook would ask.
“Oh, you don’t need a recipe for spoon bread. Just take some corn meal…”
Pressed for more definite measurements Mother would say, “Oh, quite a lot of corn meal.”
Pressed still further, she’d give out, “Well, that blue bowl almost full.” And then to us children, “Heavens, if you have to tell them everything, you might as well do it yourself.”
“Moisten the lady fingers with some milk,” she’d give directions for making one of our favorite desserts. But how could she give an exact amount for the milk? If the lady fingers were dry you used more milk; if soft, less milk. You knew when they were moist enough.
The same with the time element. You cooked one steak 7 minutes, another 10. A pudding, a meat loaf, a cake stayed in the oven until it was ready to come out. Good Lord, you couldn’t give an exact time; you cooked things until they were done.
With nothing was Mother more accurate in this uncanny time sense of hers than when soft-boiling an egg. Mother put the egg into a pan of boiling water, took the pan off the fire, and after a little while – never looking at the clock – took out the egg. It was always perfect. Not too runny, not too hard, just right.
“But it’s so easy,” Mother would say. “A small egg you take out a little sooner, or one with a thin shell. And you feel it; if it’s especially cold, you leave it in longer.”
Mother’s menus were varied and had a quality of unexpectedness. One reason was her system of giving foods a “rest” as she called it. If we had a roast one day, we didn’t have cold meat the next. Instead the roast, wrapped up in waxed paper, “rested” in the icebox, and fried oysters or spareribs or creamed eggs on toast would appear. Two or three days later we’d have the cold meat. And if there were any bits of that left it was given another “rest” before coming on in croquettes or stuffed bell peppers. You always got Mother’s leftovers, but you never knew when, or in what form they’d appear.
She had a great variety of recipes. As someone said to her, “I’ve been here a month and never had the same dessert twice.”
“That’s only thirty desserts,” said Mother. “I certainly know that many desserts.”
As a matter of fact, the same dessert had been served more than once. Like a woman with one costume, changing her accessories, Mother knew how to disguise her dishes with different sauces and fixings.
There was a frozen custard she made, simple and inexpensive. She varied it by serving it one time with maple sirup and chopped nuts, and the next time she might have crushed strawberries or raspberries over it. Or she might use crushed peppermint candy sticks, or a chocolate sauce, or a butterscotch sauce, or sliced fresh figs. It was the same custard but not the same trimmings.
Mother never threw anything away. Vegetable water – never very much because Mother cooked in as little water as possible – was poured into a jar and kept in the icebox until it was ready to be used in soup. Ham liquor was saved to boil vegetables in. Little dabs of peas, cauliflower, string beans, or carrots were used in salad. Bits of applesauce, jelly and honey went into bread puddings.
All leftover pieces of bread and toast were made into crumbs. A cup of bread crumbs would be used to replace that much flour in waffle or pancake batter. Toast crumbs went into the melted butter which was poured over cauliflower. Cauliflower isn’t cauliflower to me without that peculiarly nutty flavor which those buttered toast crumbs give it. And of course Mother used bread crumbs in meat stuffings. Her stuffed shoulder of lamb was so good, and the lamb went a lot further when you ate dressing with it.
A little hot-cake batter could be used later for fritters. A couple of ears of corn could have the grains scraped off and be combined with onions and bell peppers to make a succotash. Leftover squash or asparagus could go into souffles. If there was also a little lamb left it could be creamed and put in the middle of the souffle ring. A smidgeon of chicken could have a can of tuna mixed with it and still be creamed chicken on toast.
Leftover mashed potatoes became potato cakes or potato soup or were whipped into turnips, making them fluffier and taking away the watery consistency which turnips so often have.
Another way Mother saved was to have on the table a lot of “befores,” as she called them, dishes of celery, raw carrot strips, onions, radishes, and the like. When we sat down Mother started passing these around with the result that both family and boarders had the edge of their appetites dulled by inexpensive raw vegetables before the main dishes came on. Whether this was deliberate on Mother’s part or just happenstance, I don’t know, but there always seemed to be a lot of leftovers for other meals.
Mother did the carving. Father’s explanation for this was that as a child he’d never had anything to eat but beans – which wasn’t quite true and that he didn’t know the first thing about carving.
“You could learn,” Mother told him. “I didn’t do any carving as a child either.”
“But you at least could watch something being carved. You had those wonderful Virginia hams, those marvelous Virginia chickens, while I” – and Father would put a tremolo into his voice – “while all I had to watch was my mother dishing up those Arizona frijoles.”
I never could tell whether Father was really serious or just making fun of Mother. Anyway, she did the carving. She was so short she had to stand up to do it. The procedure was always the same. She would pick up the carving knife, run her thumb down its edge, say, “Mm, mm, I could ride on this,” leave the table and go into the back hall where a big brick chimney ran up to the roof. Immediately would come the sound of a knife being honed vigorously against bricks. We had a carving steel, but Mother preferred the chimney.
To Mother food was the remedy for any crisis – local or national. If friends were ill, Mother found out what they could eat and sent it over. At a death, Mother didn’t send flowers to the bereaved, but a baked ham, a frozen salad, cakes, and cookies. “There’ll be lots of people coming and going,” she would say, “and she won’t feel like cooking.” During the First World War from one to six soldiers were always turning up for meals. During the depression she had a stew kettle going all day long.
Unfortunately, as Tucson became more and more of a health resort, Mother began to get people who had arthritis or sinus, were on diets of one kind or another, and had to have stale bread and stewed prunes and things like that.
“How can I charge what I do,” Mother would ask, “and give you raw carrots?”
So to salve her conscience she’d provide the raw carrots, but also the rich, forbidden dishes she would have cooked ordinarily. “Just a little won’t hurt you,” she’d say temptingly.
I remember Mr. Clampitt who finally asked if he couldn’t have his Spartan fare served in his own room on a tray. “I just can’t stand it,” he said, “seeing those good things and not eating them.”
“You know,” I heard Mother tell Father, “I feel guilty charging him what I do, and giving him just those few vegetables.”
“Why don’t you cut it down then, don’t charge him so much?”
“But if he weren’t here, I’d have someone who could eat my food.”
And she tried to make it up by feeding Mrs. Clampitt double, urging food upon the poor woman until she gained so much she couldn’t get into her clothes. I remember this distinctly, because when she left she gave Mother half a dozen dresses bought at Saks.
“Fine racket,” sniffed Father. “Feed her so she can’t wear her clothes; then get the clothes for yourself.”