"You kids don’t know how good you have it,” my dad would say, his eyes sweeping the table set for dinner. It didn’t take us long to figure it out.
My parents were generous and hospitable, often bringing family, friends and neighbors to the table, which fit our family of eight comfortably. For holidays, Mom would buy whole beef sirloins, and pan-fry up to thirty steaks, two pans going at a time, the windows and kitchen door wide open to vent the smoke even in the coldest weather. Both kitchen and dining room tables were full. I was at the kid’s table downstairs in an office chair.
Mom was on a Chinese food kick when my sister came home with friends one evening. Dad loved to have company and enjoyed their amazement at the tender boneless breasts of lemon chicken and fried rice actually made in someone’s home, and that there was plenty even with five more at the table.
Weeknight meals were never dull. Mom broiled pork chops dusted with paprika, lamb chops, flank steaks. There were homemade french fries and corn fritters, vast bowls of white rice and mashed potatoes. Homemade spaghetti sauce with meatballs was often served with a whole chicken baked in tomato sauce, salad and two kinds of Italian bread. Or lasagna. On hot nights when little league games pushed up mealtime, Mom cooked up two pounds of bacon for BLT sandwiches.
Attendance at Sunday dinners was mandatory, at least until we were old enough to work. Then Dad would stir anchovy paste into oil in the big wooden salad bowl to start the dressing, the only thing he ever made besides ice cubes. I remember it was almost always a roast, like prime rib or rolled and tied roast beef; in the spring we’d have leg of lamb marinated with rosemary, or an enormous fresh ham, the kind with the crispy skin. In the kitchen we would break off pieces, scrape off the fat and shake the salt over, generously, while Mom sliced up the meat. Heaven.
Sometimes there were meals just for her and Dad, when she fed the rest of us early. We were always welcome to join them and try something new, like roast duck or warm spinach salad. They took us all out, occasionally, to fine restaurants, and they went out often, giving us a run-down on the meal when they got home.
Mom’s specialty was dessert. Dad loved custard and rice pudding (with rum-soaked raisins), we liked the glass dishes of brightly colored Jell-O topped with whipped cream, and homemade chocolate pudding, icebox cakes. My favorite was the sugar-dusted strawberry shortcake roll she’d make in the spring. She still makes desserts for herself: chocolate cakes, gingerbread with lemon sauce, caramel custard.
Summers were the best time of year, with our friends in the pool and well-attended barbecues in the evening. Dad would take us to the beverage center in the morning where we’d pick out cases of black cherry and orange and vanilla sodas to fill the plastic coolers on the patio. He never knew moderation: hot dogs went on the grill a pack at a time. I prefer them charred, because that’s how he made them.
Often we’d come home from school to find Mom made white or wheat bread, four loaves at a time, or cupcakes with real buttercream icing, or pecan rolls, or caramel corn. Looking back, our after-school snacks were perhaps not the healthiest but we knew we were lucky to have them.
My Mom, not the warmest and fuzziest mom on the block, was generous in her own way. She knew the kids next door loved chocolate chip cookies, so she made them, and she remembered everyone’s favorites. It was impossible not to like her food, and in return for being a “good eater,” you were invited back.
My father was so proud of her. A self-taught cook in an era before cookbooks even had photos, she picked up lessons from friends, neighbors and Julia Child and figured out everything on her own: puff pastry, cooked buttercream icing, tomato sauce, lobster bisque. We kids benefited, and I like to think we carry on her love of cooking and eating in our own kitchens, and at our own tables.