Tell us about your favorite childhood meal — the one that was always a treat, that meant “celebration,” or that comforted you and has deep roots in your memory.
Feel free to focus on any aspect of the meal, from the food you ate to the people who were there to the event it marked.
Today’s twist: Tell the story in your own distinct voice.
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I was wracking my pea brain trying to come up with something from my childhood – perhaps when you’re in your mid-50’s like I am, the truth is, my childhood was a looong time ago. We’re talking the 1960’s Mad Men era.
But there’s more to it, of course. My memories of “life with Mom” weren’t always pleasant. My parents were divorced, and my dad precipitously moved out of state with a job and a new wife and three step-kids. I spent summers with him, usually, but the school year was just me and Mom. We had a few cats, too, but even there, they didn’t always last. One cat with the improbable name of Garfunkel (he whined a lot) was returned to the cat adoption place. Poor cat – maybe it was actually his name that doomed him?
My mother didn’t work until after she was divorced and the first job she got was as an elementary school teacher. Bad choice. She hated it, she hated the kids, and I guess the feeling was mutual. She was at that job for one school year, maybe two, and then she got a job with the Long Beach Unified School District. Maybe it was just doing a geographic that made her think that if she just moved from one district to another that would make it all better.
Of course it made it worse.
In fact, she ended up breaking her contract mid-year, never to return to the classroom. Another teacher bites the dust. It was probably around this time that she had what is colloquially called a breakdown, although what it probably was was just the crash into a deep depression from a manic episode. But she and I wouldn’t find this out until many years later.
Ooops. So this post is supposed to be about food, not bi-polar depression. But I hope I’ve conveyed that life with Mom wasn’t exactly a picnic. (See how I did that?)
The thing is – she actually did a good job as a mother, especially when you think that here she was, under 30 years old, with a child, divorced, having to work for the very first time in her life, having to be in charge of herself and her child for the very first time in her life, and trying to cope with a mystery illness that took her to places that swung from mania (fun but extremely chaotic and destructive) to complete and utter despair. But for all that – I was still fed, clothed, and did well in school. And we lived in a nice apartment that was neat and clean most of the time (I’m sure you know when it was truly spic-n-span!), and she made most of the dinners herself.
One of her comfort food dinners that she made pretty frequently was what she dubbed “potatoes and cheese and tomato and onions” or maybe it was “potatoesandcheeseandtomatoandonions”. All mushed together like.
Now, cheese is a big thing in our family. Maybe due to the German ethnicity of my mother’s side, but we love cheese, especially the cheddar and extra especially the SHARP cheddar. Yum. To this day, my very elderly Aunt B. (88 tomorrow, June 14) gets a big brick of New York Sharp Cheddar aged about ten thousand years (no, probably 18-24 months) that is the most tangy, delicious thing on the face of this here earth.
Recently we had a cheese incident that led to a very unfortunate alimentary canal blockage (otherwise known as constipation) that ended up needing some medical intervention (it was not pretty, believe me.) But even so, I don’t think my mother will cease eating cheese – I just want her to moderate the consumption of said dairy product – her bowels will thank her.
Back to her P & C & T & O (we can abbreviate that P&C&T&O) dish. It was just about exactly what it sounded like. She’d basically slice potatoes very thin, grate the cheese and layer them in a Pyrex casserole dish. Then she poured some milk over the mess, not too much, threw on some salt and pepper and baked it for about 30 or so minutes. The tomatoes and onions portion was made in a pan – it was canned stewed tomatoes with an extra onion sliced thin and simmered together until the onion was cooked through. The way we ate it was in a bowl – scooping out the P&C mixture and topping it with the T&O mixture.
Now I know the P&C mixture sounds exactly like a potatoes au gratin recipe and it probably was, but my mother never called it that. So I don’t, either. Personally, I think the trick is to put just a little bit of milk in it – you want the cheese to melt and bubble up and you don’t want it to have too much liquid, but you need it in the beginning of the baking. So maybe just a quarter or a third of a cup.
As you can see, there’s no real recipe for this dish. I never remember her consulting anything to make this and she had Julia Child and the Rombauer books on the shelf.
But every time she made it, it was . . . wonderful.