Spectacular Failures in Cooking History (How I Survived My Mother's Swiss Cheese Fondue and Lived to Tell About It)
As I come to terms with the death of my mother, it can only be expected that a lot of my time has been devoted to reverie. I'd rather not dwell on everything that was lost with her passing. It's much more meaningful to me to sift through a lifetime of events...retrieve them from the many storage boxes in the attic of my mind, dust them off, hold them up and smile at the memory.
Today, I've found one labeled "How to Cook for a Family of Five" and I'm eager to explore its contents. Perhaps you wouldn't mind keeping me company as I sift through it? If not, have a seat on the floor here with me...don't mind the dust, I'll be happy to share some of my favorite stories.
What my Family Was Compared To
By family of five...I mean five children. With the addition of my parents, there would normally be seven hungry mouths to feed. Every couple of years or so, my father would be stationed on isolated tour of duty to some remote corner of the world and my mother would be left to manage the entire household of unruly kids on her own. As an adult, I can now appreciate how difficult that must have been...but she never complained.
She was a "stay at home" type mom. Except for chores like grocery shopping and the occasional trips to the doctor's office, hair salon and BX (sort of a military Walmart), whenever we wanted to find her...that was where the five of us started the search. There wasn't enough time to cater to each of us individually and if one of us had taken up an after school hobby like soccer or softball, our two legs and a bicycle could get us where we needed to be.
On the weekends, she piled all of us into the family Datsun and drove to church. The priest used to tease my mother, saying that watching us exit the small car was very similar to a performance of circus clowns. Even without my father's presence, we were a pretty large family. Luckily these were the 1970's and nobody thought twice about children riding on laps or without a car seat. It never would have worked with the current standards of transportation.
My mother would return from grocery trips, usually taken with my older brother or sister to manage the second shopping cart, with a packed vehicle. The car had been stuffed like a Thanksgiving turkey and all of us chipped in to help bring the bags inside the house. My mother was a true wizard when it came to making the most of my father's paycheck. She paid all of the household bills, clothed us, fed us and still managed to have something to put toward savings. As far as she was concerned, credit cards were evil and best saved for emergencies.
How did she do it? I've often wondered.
Photo by pyza
One of her tricks was to schedule meals to make the most of whatever she had purchased. If it was Friday, you could pretty much guarantee that dinner would be tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches, fried fish or cheese pizza. We were Catholics after all and everyone knew that red meat was a no-no. Mondays could be hamburgers, tacos or the dreaded Spam. While we made do with bowls of cereal every week day, Saturday mornings always meant bacon and eggs and Sundays were reserved for pancakes, waffles or muffins. Sure, we teased her frequently about this predictable schedule...but looking back, I can see the wisdom behind it. Life was chaotic enough with five rambunctious children...it only made sense to control what could be controlled.
My mother was a fair cook. If the recipe was tried and true, handed down from generation to generation, she could put it together in a satisfying way. She was never comfortable experimenting in the kitchen...but occasionally she did try. More often than not, rather than try something new, she preferred to allow one of us to take over the chore of cooking. My sixteen year old brother could whip up an omelet that would have made a French chef cry and question his own ability. I have many fond memories of my own...afternoons spent watching my mother bake cookies or make spaghetti sauce, lending a hand at any task she deemed fit for my small hands. Often, when my mother baked, she would tell me stories that went along with the foods we were preparing, stories of how she learned to cook from her own mother.
Years later, as we each took our turns leaving the nest, gathering these family recipes became paramount. Painstakingly, we would copy our mother's neat script into our own recipe book and become frustrated whenever we came upon an item that listed the quantity as "until it looks right." My grandmother, evidently, had never been big on actual measurements. Other annoying instructions were "until it tastes right," "until it feels right," and "until it's done." Between the five of us, we have pretty much compiled an accurate catalog of our favorite family recipes along with a fair approximation of those measurements translated into a more universal language. Still, that never stopped us from picking up the phone and going straight to the source rather than trying to find where we had put that darn recipe.
This thought of course brings on a bout of severe melancholy.
Of course, there are some recipes that none of us wanted...perhaps hoping that if we rejected them, they would fade gracefully into oblivion and only be thought about when the five of us were recalling mom's greatest food disasters. Off the top of my head, I can think of two rather stunning experiments and one "family recipe" that she insisted was absolutely delicious and we just "didn't know what was good for us."
I'll take them in the order of what I consider to be the least offensive to the most offensive...
All you have to say is "Greasy Bread" in the company of my siblings and the reaction is instantaneous. One might gasp in horror, another giggle...but we are unanimous in the decision that this recipe was a perfect example of why our mother should not have been allowed to cut out random recipe articles in Better Homes & Gardens. To this day, I really have no idea what it was supposed to have been. I think it was an effort to give a meal the illusion of meat...without containing any meat. As we stared down at our plates in confusion during this particular evening meal, all we saw was a slice of bread with some sort of greasy substance congealing on the top. With trepidation, I picked up my fork, pressed it against the offensive mass and watched as the semi-liquid oozed between the tines. I looked across the table to my older sister...a plea for help.
We were good kids and proud of the fact that we ate what was put before us without complaint...usually. I could count the number of meal mutinies on one hand...with two fingers. There was the "I'm not eating liver and you can beat me senseless or ground me for eternity before I will" revolt of 1968. And in the seventies, I once sat at the table for four hours while a bowl of pea soup coagulated before me, my lips pressed tightly together. Otherwise, we understood that there were millions of kids starving all over the planet, especially in India and Africa, and we were very lucky to have food on our plate...as our mother was only too happy to point out with great frequency.
Still...the idea of going hungry suddenly seemed vastly appealing to this thing on our plate that looked like garbage disposal fodder. We didn't want to hurt our mother's feelings though, and I believe it was my brother who actually made the attempt to eat it. Unfortunately, the gag reflex kicked in and as you know...sometimes you can't help having a sympathy gag reflex of your own when in close proximity to the genuine thing. I guess my mother didn't find the meal too appetizing either, because she took pity on all of us and promptly put together peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. The relief was palpable.
Photo by Apple Banana Cantelope
My mother had some rather odd ideas of what was yummy. I remember one of her favorite treats was pickled herring. Oddly enough, once you got past the smell...they really weren't so bad. I ranked pickled herring up there with cauliflower and broccoli...things I wouldn't ask for, but if they happened to be what was available, I'd endure them. However, there was one thing I would never try...and as far as I know, all of my siblings are in concurrence. My mother had some Polish name for it...but the five of us fondly labeled the dish, Glop.
We all understood that mom was a child of the depression. Her own mother had eight children to feed, so it had to have been rather tough. My own grandmother used to make bathtub gin for the local police department to make ends meet...but there still never seemed to be enough. So I could probably excuse this dish...if not for the fact that it was no longer the depression and therefore there was no need to eat something this horrifying.
What was Glop, you ask? I watched once as my mother made it. She carefully mixed flour and water together until it resembled dough...laughing when I pointed out that this was what I had been told in school was the basic recipe for PASTE. She would then place these little balls of dough into a pot of steaming milk, sprinkle in a little pepper and simmer it "until it looked right." I'm sure back in the 1930's this was considered a meal that stuck to your ribs...but she didn't HAVE to eat this anymore. Wisely, she never served this for dinner. It would have taken centuries to convince her kids that eating paste balls floating in a sea of milk was a good idea.
Photo by TomorrowGirl
Swiss Cheese Fondue
My final example of good intentions gone bad is the infamous Swiss Cheese Fondue. To be fair, it did sound good to me when my mother talked about it...
New Years Eve was often a big occasion in our house. It was rare for my parents to attend parties, although they did every so often. Neither one of them were big drinkers and my mother didn't approve of some of the antics of what she referred to as the desperate housewives on the base...especially when they got drunk and threw themselves at her husband, so her idea of a good time usually revolved around her family. As children, we were in total agreement with her.
For weeks she would plan the menu. Olives wrapped in bacon, miniature savories, a variety of cheeses and crackers...the table was always heavy with assorted finger foods that fit perfectly in a child's hand. We even wore funny hats and had horns to blow at midnight...although my brother would run around and blast it in your ear at every opportunity before the actual moment.
This one year, I want to say it was 1972...but it could have been 1971 or even 1973, my mother declared that she had found a new recipe to try. Having recently acquired a fondue pot in a lovely shade of harvest gold, which was the current rage, she decided to make good use of it. Her eyes would light up as she described the recipe...a conconction of creamy, melted swiss cheese and white wine. Perfect, she claimed, for dipping fruit and crusty pieces of French bread. Yeah...it sounds yummy doesn't it? I liked cheese...I liked bread and fruit...didn't know much about the wine, but I was all for it since I was still a kid. It sounded very grown-up to my ears.
The kitchen was a long galley style, stretching the width of the house from the front door to the back door. Since every bit of counter space was already claimed by various dishes and their containers, my father set up the fondue pot on the washing machine close to the back door. When it came time to sample the cuisine, we lined up with great expectation, fondue forks in hand. Somehow I ended up at the head of the line...
I speared a piece of French bread onto the tip of my fork and eagerly stepped forward for the first dip.
There was no warning...none at all. One moment, I was hovering over the pot and the next, my eyes were watering and I was gasping for air. This made no sense. Quickly, I pressed my nose against the screen of the back door and gulped down some fresh air before making another attempt. This time I approached the pot a bit more cautiously, extending my fork about a foot or two before me so as to avoid the miasma that lingered in the vicinity.
It didn't work. Mind over matter was having no effect either. Try as I might...my mother's much anticipated swiss cheese fondue smelled like hot vomit. I plucked the bread off the fork, popped it into my mouth and said not a word of my discovery to anyone else. Perhaps it was just me after all...and the others would enjoy it.
One by one I watched as family members stepped up to the fondue pot with great gusto, only to freeze in mid-dip and rethink their appetite. Not a single person said a word...they merely stepped back as I had done, leaving the cheese to stand alone. This was the culmination of my mother's culinary work ...and after all she had done to make this a party a memorable occasion, none of us were willing to ruin it.
My mother noticed that the tidbits for the fondue were rapidly disappearing. She just didn't realize they were being devoured sans fondue. With confidence, she turned to all of us and asked us how we liked the dip, only to be met with six rather guilty faces. Curious, she peered into the fondue pot...oddly unaffected by the roiling stench within.
"Has anyone even TRIED the fondue yet?" she asked in voice that made us squirm. One by one she gave us "the look" waiting for an answer.
I could bear it no more...she simply had to be told.
"Mom..." I began with my most apologetic, please don't be mad expression, "it smells like vomit."
"It does NOT!" she exclaimed, although her voice lost a bit of its confidence as she looked into each of our faces and realized we were in agreement. "You obviously don't know what's good for you! Here...I'll show you!"
My brother and sisters looked at each other. As if we were going to trust the tastebuds of a woman that ate paste on purpose.
We need not have worried. With the fondue fork hovering about an inch from my mother's lips, her eyes began to water and her mouth snapped shut in obvious rebellion. Without a word, my father walked out the door and moments later returned with the shovel in his hand. He then proceeded to dig a very, very deep hole in the back yard, consigning the swiss cheese fondue forever to the pit of hell that it had come from.
Our family lived in that house for a few more years before my father received orders to relocate. During that time, it was no surprise that nothing ever grew on the ground covering the toxic waste site. The grass formed a perfect ring around it, a reminder to all of us.
Jumping into Toxic Waste...Does Not Give You Super Powers
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