Wednesday, September 28, 2011

An excerpt from "Porch Sofa Almanac"

(This essay appears in "A Porch Sofa Almanac" under the title "Cooking With Grandma")
Whenever I hear one of those food poisoning stories come across the radio, I reach over and turn the volume up. It’s only a matter of time until my mother-in-law is implicated.

She’s developed a cavalier attitude toward freshness codes lately. She thinks they’re a sign that America has gone soft. She says common sense and her nose will tell her when something “goes bad.”

It’s the South Dakota Depression era farm girl coming out in her – the one who grew up without electricity, refrigeration or pasteurization.

Either that or it’s the frugal Fridley mother of eight, who routinely performed miracles with loaves of Wonder Bread and cans of tuna fish and got her lunchtime multitudes fed.

There was a brief period – a couple of decades there – when she cooked fairly normally. Now she’s reverting to form, paring the spongy parts off shriveled potatoes and making soup with octogenarian leftovers.

She’s playing fast and loose with the microbes – and reminding us every so often that Flemming developed penicillin from some form of mould.

“Eat this,” I once heard her say as she handed an open container of cottage cheese to a grandchild. “Then I’ll tell you how old it is.”

She’s even found stores that specialize in selling old and dented canned goods and come home with bags full of God-knows what and a glow in her heart that not even the most successful Bloomingdale’s bargain hunter could hope to match.

The woman doesn’t date freshness in days or weeks – or even in months. It’s a matter of years, decades and, now, centuries – even millennia.

There was the can of coconut milk she bought in Hawaii in 1976, last seen on a cupboard shelf in 2002. Asked where it went, she said she’d made cookies with it, and served the cookies to her card club.

“The ladies said they were the best they’d ever had,” she reported smugly.

Don’t get me wrong. The woman is a great cook. She still makes a world class ginger snap, and I’ll put her fried chicken up against anyone’s – any time, any place, anywhere.

But, like Ronald Reagan negotiating with the Soviet Union, I’ve adopted a “trust-but-verify” stance when she cooks. I like my chicken – all my food for that matter – to be at least four decades younger than I am. I want to see it every step of the way from the store to her frying pan and on to my plate.

Especially now, with the Holidays coming and all those old family recipes about to hit the table. I’m going to keep an eye on my mother-in-law. I suggest you keep an eye on yours, too.

Those old recipes are great – especially with fresh ingredients.

Which is why, if I have my say, Thanksgiving will be at our house once again this year.