People always ask the question, “where did you learn to cook?” Sometimes, my snotty response is something like, “well, my mother was such a bad cook that I knew there had to be something better, so I learned how to cook the right way.” This is not entirely true. Hope was not one of the great chefs of the world, but she did the best she could. She had a fussy husband (and my two finicky brothers) whose culinary spirit of adventure was non-existent. The man refused to eat rice, for crying out loud! As she said, he would have been happy eating bologna sandwiches on preservative-rich white bread for the rest of his life. One thing I never appreciated until later was the fact that Hope is actually an adventurous eater, and one who truly relishes the taste of food. Sadly, my dad never got it. My mom said that the military ruined any chance for Carter to actually like food; eating was always just perfunctory to him.
One of the greatest things I can thank mum for is exposing me to fruits and vegetables that were not part of a normal kid’s diet (at least for where and when I grew up). We had pomegranates, kiwis, starfruits, papayas, and many other exotic treats after dinner, just me and mum. My dad was completely uninterested and I think my brothers just never saw the point in eating such things. When my aunt Louella brought a case of artichokes from California with her on a visit, you can bet that it was me, mum, and Lou who ate every single one. I must’ve been about six or seven then, and I am grateful for the memory of eating those huge, crazy thistles for the first time.
Beyond the exotic fruits and vegetables there are certain things that Hope prepared that I still love. It has a lot to do with nostalgia, but I do think that certain dishes really were just plain good, at the root of them. Her stew made of potatoes, bacon, and green beans, for example, is simple food designed to fill you up with very little cost; you change it up a bit and suddenly, it is a rich, smoky, warm potato salad laced with vinegar and grainy mustard. Her roasted brisket with carrots and potatoes informs my holiday preparations every year. She also taught me to make simple, delicious, and tasty salmon cakes. There are no secrets here – just a few simple ingredients and some messy hands. What’s great about them is how quickly they come together for an easy meal, and if you try them once, I think you’ll find yourself keeping the ingredients for them on hand at all times. Don’t be scared of canned salmon, but if you are not into cleaning it up with your hands, you can get skinless, boneless versions in either smaller cans or in those foil pouches – just be prepared to spend a little extra money there and to miss some of the good fats that are in the salmon skin. If you are like me, as soon as these hit the pan, you’ll be back in your childhood home on that first spring day when it was warm enough to have the windows wide open. *sigh* Love you, mumma.