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.

Datsun 510

Uncomfortably seats six
Uncomfortably seats six

What my Family Was Compared To

...a bunch of clowns getting out of the car
...a bunch of clowns getting out of the car

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.

Spam...

To this day I cannot eat it...
To this day I cannot eat it...

Photo by pyza

I dunno Mom...it tastes sorta funny
I dunno Mom...it tastes sorta funny

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.

Perhaps the recipe for Greasy Bread came from this book...
Perhaps the recipe for Greasy Bread came from this book...

Greasy Bread

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

How to Make Paste...and Glop
How to Make Paste...and Glop

Glop

 

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

I don't remember this person at the New Year's Eve Party...but the expression is right.
I don't remember this person at the New Year's Eve Party...but the expression is right.

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

Darn...
Darn...

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Comments 23 comments

moonlake profile image

moonlake 8 years ago from America

My friend found out about her eggs once she opened the jar to have one. In those days the eggs stayed in the jar a few weeks until you tried them.

They eat pickled herring here at Christmas and New Years. My husband loves the cream kind. I don't eat them.


spryte profile image

spryte 8 years ago from Arizona, USA Author

Sally - This is why kitchen clatches are priceless...I'd completely forgotten about the pickled herring/good luck thing at New Year's! Thanks for bringing back that particular memory.

OMG...the spit it out in the toilet bit. I remember that! My older sister once did that with Macaroni & Cheese casserole (not that she didn't like it...she just didn't want to eat any more of it) She stuffed into her mouth until her cheeks were puffed out like a hamster. Unfortunately, as she was heading to the bathroom she bumped into my older brother coming the other way...and he was in a sadistic mood. He stood there, not letting her pass until she had chewed and swallowed all of it. LOL! When people remark on how wonderful it is that my siblings and I are so close...we sort of laugh...remembering just how many times we wanted to kill each other growing up. :)

Thanks for the thumbs up!


Sally's Trove profile image

Sally's Trove 8 years ago from Southeastern Pennsylvania

Spryte, what a beautiful tribute to your mother and to your family's way of life.  My eyes were glued to every word.

About herring.  I like the creamed kind, and my Polish mother still insists that I eat it every New Year's Eve for good luck.

About intolerable things put on a plate in front of me to eat, there were only two:  my mother's version of fried liver (I'm with you and your gang), and horrible little steaks with a big fat string of gristle running down the center (my mother called these "chicken steaks").  Faced with either dish, I'd cram all of the meat pieces into my mouth and leave the table when my mother wasn't looking.  I'd run to the bathroom, spit them out in the toilet, flush, and return to the table.  My mother would say, "Are you OK?", and I'd say "I'm fine, but I'm done.  May I be excused?"  I'm sure she knew what I was doing, but chose her battles wisely.

Now I understand why you want to join me and Trish in the kitchen...the old stories we could tell, and the new stories we would write!

Thumbs up!


spryte profile image

spryte 8 years ago from Arizona, USA Author

Nope...no frying of the pickled herring. She just opened the jar and got all comfy in her favorite chair and ate them straight from the container. They were a snack food...

I suppose it was better than cheese puffs and potato chips.


Misha profile image

Misha 8 years ago from DC Area

Did she try to fry herring by chance? Like Vietnamese do? This is really a vomiting smell. But on itself pickled herring does not really have any strong smell, just a regular fish smell...


spryte profile image

spryte 8 years ago from Arizona, USA Author

THAT is what was missing...yeast and eggs! I knew it couldn't be just water and flour.

Hmmm...there must have been bones in that pickled herring, but I can't remember it clear enough. Misha...that dish sounds revolting though. I ate the pickled herring, but with two fingers pinching my nostrils shut. I'd never survive a pickled herring casserole.


Misha profile image

Misha 8 years ago from DC Area

You got me interested, and I did google some recipes, and looks like "kliotski" can be made of just about everything :D Including ground meat, but I still think pieces of ground meat in a soup are properly called "frikadel'ki". If one uses dough, it is with yeast and eggs - at least what I was able to google...

Oh, and pickled herring is a common food in Nothern Europe and Russia. I am not a big fan of it because I hate fish bones, but if it was made boneless and served with egg white and onions under mustard sauce - I can eat quite a lot :D


spryte profile image

spryte 8 years ago from Arizona, USA Author

Yeah...I hear ya on the new school thing. Four elementary schools, two junior high schools and thankfully just one high school (my father retired before I started that).

How long did it take your friend to realize that her pickled eggs weren't getting pickled? :)


moonlake profile image

moonlake 8 years ago from America

It was a pretty cool life. Hard to go to a new school but still fun. I still have friends from those days. It seems military friends stay friends.

My friend once pickled eggs with the shells on them she thought they would get soft.


spryte profile image

spryte 8 years ago from Arizona, USA Author

Hmmm...that word DOES sound familiar. I think whatever she called it did begin with a "k". But were those pieces of dough actually just flour and water? Something seems to be missing there...


Misha profile image

Misha 8 years ago from DC Area

I bet your glop is actually called something like "kliotski". Small pieces of dough added to more or less any kind of soup. It can be pretty tasty when done properly :)


spryte profile image

spryte 8 years ago from Arizona, USA Author

I can understand lima beans...and definitely those neon green wrinkly peas, but I have a weakness for those Lesieur Baby Peas that come in a silvery can. :)

Thanks Rochelle...coming from a writer whose work I admire immensely, your comments mean a great deal to me!


Rochelle Frank profile image

Rochelle Frank 8 years ago from California Gold Country

Wonderful stories! Told wonderfully.

"The cheese stands alone."

I can remember sincerely wanting to send peas and lima beans to the starving children of the world-- but who could be so cruel?


spryte profile image

spryte 8 years ago from Arizona, USA Author

moonlake - From one military brat to another - wasn't it a pretty cool life? I missed out on any overseas travel (rats) but my older brother and sister were able to experience Japan and Germany. It was hard at times...not having true roots...but I would never trade that experience for anything in the world now.

Jerie - I'm so glad my mother never discovered tofu! Blech! :) But of course now I'm curious...what did you do to that poor hapless bean curd?

Misha - Of everyone here...and given your background, I bet you can. My mother dragged a lot of her mother's and father's heritage with her into the kitchen. My grandmother was Ukranian and my grandfather was Polish. Not quite the same...but under the same regime at the time. My brother and sisters have always wondered if that Glop recipe came from some funky Slavic Cook Book somewhere...


Misha profile image

Misha 8 years ago from DC Area

Can't stop laughing! And I definitely can relate on some of your experiences. Sweet memories :)

Thanks Spryte!


Jerie Clowes profile image

Jerie Clowes 8 years ago from New York, NY

This is great. It not only reminds me of some of my mother's missteps in the kitchen, but some of my own and my children's reactions. Especially when I discovered tofu!


moonlake profile image

moonlake 8 years ago from America

Your mother sounds like my mother. We were a family with 5 kids. I was the oldest so I had the work that my mother needed to pass off. Keep the kids in line and all of that. She went to Germany with 5 kids not really knowing what she was doing. We made it and had a happy life as military brats. Once a month pay checks..... by the end of the month we were eating corn bread and milk or crackers and milk. To this day I love both.

Enjoyed your hub.


spryte profile image

spryte 8 years ago from Arizona, USA Author

Thanks Ananta for that encouraging statement...LOL! My sister and I were discussing the other day whether or not it was the fondue or our mother's interpretation of it that led to the smell...

Thanks for the thumbs up as well :)


Ananta65 8 years ago

Don't let one single failure put you off, Spryte ;) A PROPER cheese fondue can be very tasty :)

And by the way, I liked the hub, thumbs up ;)


spryte profile image

spryte 8 years ago from Arizona, USA Author

You are a true sadist Ananta :P


Ananta65 8 years ago


spryte profile image

spryte 8 years ago from Arizona, USA Author

Hiya ajcor -

Yeah, she was a really great sport about our "hey remember when Mom..." stories. I don't think anyone laughed harder than she did.

Thanks for dropping in and leaving a comment!


ajcor profile image

ajcor 8 years ago from NSW. Australia

hysterical - your mother really sounds like she was a good sport!

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