Apples, Sweet Potatoes, and Thanksgiving

Before Mom passed I made a mental list of all the big days coming up that would be tough to face; after Mom passed I felt the harsh reality that every single day was tough to face. Days passed painfully, slowly, and nights passed violently. I adopted a rigid routine for the stability my life needed. Day in, day out, 1 month turned into 2 months, and then there was Thanksgiving. I wish I could say I was overcome with memories, but I was in survivor mode.

Here we were though; Thanksgiving was upon us. We had two options: we could either do dinner ourselves or we could join our relatives. The image of the three of us plus significant others sitting around a half cooked turkey was not how I wanted to start the first of what would be many Thanksgivings without Mom. I didn’t know though what I did want Thanksgiving to look like, other than we couldn’t be alone – and who else other than family do you turn to?

Mom had been a cook, not necessarily driven to cook for the art of cooking, she cooked because she loved us. And despite her own frequent criticisms of her cooking, Mom’s meals were always a success. The few meals I very much disliked weren’t even misses on Mom’s part – they were misses because I personally didn’t care for the finished product. I do have to stop now though to share a story about one of Mom’s big misses: the green beans. The Thanksgiving green beans of my childhood were tossed with bacon and onions sautéed in grease. These beans were a delight. One year, without provocation, Mom bought two bags of ready to steam green beans with almonds. I remember tossing the bag in the microwave, nuking it, dumping it into a dish, saying, “too cold.” Nuking bag two. Tossing bag two into the dish and mixing and mixing hoping the heat from bag two would warm the beans of bag one. Mom stuck her manicured finger in the beans, muttered, “Damn beans.”

Reflecting on the history of Mom’s timeless dishes (and few misses), I felt an overwhelming need and desire to see and taste two of my favorite sides. Cranberry apple sauce and sweet potato apple bake. I counted on these as my mains year after year, and as leftovers for days.

I had never cooked either dish in entirety; I had only ever been a helper. Nor had I ever bought the ingredients, but when the recipe said four sweet potatoes I knew I had to double it because I distinctly remembered scalding the tips of my fingers peeling still hot boiled sweet potatoes. I didn’t know how much effort went into buying apples of different varieties, and I was almost angry that the grocery stocked so many new names!

I was determined to make these dishes though and make them to the best of my ability. I entered the kitchen robotically, focused on the end goal, but then I gravitated to this large yellow bowl. This large yellow bowl Mom only had because it was a piece of the tableware set.. A bowl she never found a permanent purpose for but was always used in the making of the cranberry apple sauce. Dusting off the maroon glass bakeware because that was the vessel for the finished sauce year after year. She had a kitchen full of stuff collected over a lifetime. And I knew their stories. I knew their uses.

Carly and I bickering over the good peeler. Covering the apple chunks in cold water and lemon peels to keep them from browning. Scalding hot sweet potato skins. The look of the cubed drops of butter against the orange sweet potato and apple lines.

The dishes turned out fine; the cranberry apple sauce more so than the sweet potato apple dish but nonetheless each were eaten and enjoyed. In a small way, for just a short bit, I felt like I could do this.

From the Beginning

If I had told Mom I was going to cook my way through her recipe book one day, she most likely would have scoffed at the idea. “Why? Those recipes are old.” Well, Mom, because its the food I was raised on and the food Dad knows. (I was also raised on Wonder bread but as far as I know there is no mention of Wonder bread in any of the recipes.)

The majority of the recipes are, indeed, old and compliment the mantra of meat-vegetable-starch for dinner. Tastes have changed. Grains have come into popularity. Roasting has replaced steaming. I adopted vegetarianism. Still, a marinated pork chop, lamb kabobs on the grill, a starch and vegetable sounds pretty darn good! That being said, the challenge for me will be stepping away from my own go-to vegetarian friendly cooking blogs to cook something I won’t eat. Or, I can look at it as an opportunity to stretch my cooking skills, pair veg-friendly entrees alongside meats, and grow more comfortable preparing meat.

As I embark on this project, its also a happy trip down memory lane. We weren’t a big foodie family, but most of our living took place around the kitchen table. Whether completing school projects, reading the paper, or as we got older simply talking to Mom, our natural inclination was to gather at the table.

Mom especially. Always at the kitchen table. Mom hunched over the magazine in front of her, glasses on, snipping recipes. She completed countless sudoku puzzles at the table. Each puzzle carefully cut from its book and a sharpened pencil with an eraser cap clipped to her mini clipboard. This, even more so than feeding Dad, is why I’m writing this blog.

 

Mom passed away in September 2015.

I have a ways to cook and many memories to share.