Watery Tomato Sauce And Inedible Soup
My childhood and food wasn’t all rainbows and four star restaurants – like all of yours have been. My Dad had this thing about watery tomato sauce (well, I can understand that). Thinking back, my Dad had a thing about many things. I believe that he was uncertain of himself to some degree and, consequently, tried to govern the household through bluster and yelling. Not all the time, but maybe more than I felt necessary. I’m still trying to understand my Dad. Anyway, back to the watery tomato sauce! Dad’s need to hide his insecurities took the form of an out of proportion reaction to anything that might displease him. I remember one, actually more than one, family dinner where he yelled at my mother because the tomato sauce was watery and threw his plate full of spaghetti and watery tomato sauce at the wall. Watery tomato sauce is one thing, throwing it at the wall is altogether another. See, when a family eats together you make memories, and psychiatrists bills, which last a lifetime. If you’re a father – DON’T EVER DO THAT! It scares the shit out of a kid and as written here, that child will always remember it. In those memories you will be a bit diminished and a bit of our love for you will be lost by such actions.
I vaguely remember that he grilled, but even those memories are faint. He was a salesman and because of his job, and the fact that he loved eating, he ate in restaurants a lot and he made a point of taking our family to restaurants more often than other families may have gone.
The fact that Dad ate a lot in restaurants is possibly, along with the family being together for meals, another clue as to my obsession, my attitude and my approach to cooking. He was perhaps, more obsessive than passionate about his food, especially when it came to dining out. Perhaps I did pick up this passion – or the obsession. Perhaps I’m not entirely clear where the line is drawn between the two.
Dad took his family out to eat at restaurants where we found cloth tablecloths, multi-piece place settings and candles as compared to a slice of pizza on a paper plate. We learned table manners, the fact that there were several courses, how to order, we dressed up in sport coats and sometimes ties, I probably learned which fork to use when (though I can’t remember that to this day and Bonnie continues to make fun of me for it). My parents and one of my mother’s sisters were married in different years, but within days of one another. I remember the absolute HONOR AND THRILL that my cousin Claudia and I felt when, being the elder children; we were invited to join them at their wedding anniversary dinners at the Avon Old Farms restaurant. With these restaurant meals I learned that there was a world of food out there that I had could never have dreamt of. It being the 1950’s and 60’s in central Connecticut it was a relatively small world of food, but certainly larger than I would have ever known if Dad hadn’t taken us out. Not to say that we didn’t go to pizza joints and McDonald’s too, not to say that all of Dad’s instruction regarding restaurant behavior could be considered normal and certainly not to say that there have been some pretty interesting occurrences that the Grunwald family experienced in restaurants.
Dad’s responsibilities to the family excluded virtually all domestic tasks (Hey! It was the 50’s!) with the exception of mowing the lawn and eventually mom ended up with that chore too. However, I have a single, emblazoned on my psyche forever, memory of Dad ‘cooking’, doing something with Campbell’s Condensed Soup. Mom was out Christmas shopping. I vividly remember my brother and me in the late December afternoon darkness laying on the linoleum floor of a multi-family house that my Dad’s parents owned, sharing it with Mom and Dad (much to my Mom’s joy) and looking through the Christmas toy catalogs that came in the mail. What could possibly be more wonderful to a kid at Christmas time than a toy catalog?
Dinner time. Oh my God, Mom’s not home and we have to eat. She’s not Home! We’ll never eat!! Not to worry, Dad had made us soup for dinner. In making this soup, which required only the addition of water or milk and heat, he had done something that made it absolutely inedible. Beyond the grave foul. To this day I can’t imagine how he took something so very simple and turned it into a disaster. My brother and I tasted one small spoonful each and refused to eat any more. The bluster and yelling of those insecure in the command position, “You two just eat that soup! There’s nothing wrong with it and that’s all that you’re getting for dinner!” I think that I was about four years old, my brother two years younger – and, at that moment in time we were Motherless, certain that we would never see our mother again and that we would have to eat dishes as foul as this soup until were old men. So, we started crying. Not loud and bawling, simply the low mewling whimpers of motherless innocents condemned to slaughter. “Eat that soup now!!!” Dad was not at all pleased, orders were not being followed. This was just before Christmas. Can you imagine how bad this soup tasted that we refused to eat it, even though the probability of Dad’s reporting this uprising to Santa would result in our finding no presents for us under the Christmas tree? The Christmas Angel arrived in the guise of my mother. All was set right with the world, edible food was brought forth and served and presents were found under the tree on Christmas morning. Maybe Dad asked Santa to taste his soup.
One of Mom’s Recipes
No, no the chopped ham and pickle recipe – I’ll keep working on that. This is my Mom’s recipe for Angel Wings (in Polish, Chrosiki). It’s a nice little bit of light, thin and falkey doug; fried and dusted with Confectioners Sugar. Very nice.
I suspect that you can find this recipes origins in all of the Eastern Eurpean countries and beyond. Locales get so territorial about their recipes, but when you dig around you find that very few places exclusively developed a particualr dish. Regional differences – absolutely. But as or the orogination point I’ll just keep wondering.
Mom probably sent this to me while I was in college, sometime in the late 60’s or early 70’s. She knew that I had begun to love cooking and she was pleased with that. Mom did well with this dish, but as she got older they were store bought (sometimes from godd Polish bakery’s and other time from less than good chain supermarkets). I tend to associate these with Christmas and Easter – Holy Days – Angel’s Wings – makes snese to me. All of you out there that have the proverbial drawer full of Grandma’s recipesdon’t you ever throw them out. You have to make them and pass them down.
I don’t believe that Mom knew where cooking for someone could lead. I take that back, she probably did as the fact is as old as time itself. Was she encouraging me?
Easter’s Faux Communion Wafer And Hard Boiled Eggs
My obsession or, my passion regarding food and cooking did not come from Mom or Dad’s parents. Hell, some of these folks had died long before I was even born. However, there was my Dad’s mother. Ah, yes, the grandmother who seldom, if ever, raised her voice to her grandchildren in anger or, for that matter, took any interest in the lives of her grandchildren. Oh, she was there for our First Holy Communion, our Confirmation and our High School graduations, but beyond physically being there she expressed virtually no interest in us. To this day I remember that what she also had no interest in cooking.
I’m certain that my Dad’s ‘love’ of cooking, altogether different from eating, was instilled by his mother’s attitude towards it. I, to this day, want the ‘television portrait’ of a grandmother. We’ve all seen the television commercials, and I know that all of you out there except me actually have grandmothers cooking wonderful dinners, baking pies, cakes and cookies, teaching the grandchildren how to cook, passing on the age old family recipes. All the while grandmother laughing, smiling, beaming a wonderful smile at her grandchildren and the sun shining through spotless/streakless windows while bluebirds trill the theme from ‘Snow White’. It’s a wonderful picture, and I know that every one of those children in the commercial, and in real life, will grow up with a love of cooking – maybe a serial murderer too, but with a love of cooking. My grandmother, on the other hand, didn’t come anywhere close to that commercial. I never saw her cook anything – maybe hardboiled eggs (not deviled eggs, just plain old hard boiled in the shell) during the Easter holidays – but those could have been done by someone else.
OK, those memories were supposed to have been buried very deeply in an unmarked grave, yet here they are, back to haunt me – The Communion Wafer and The Easter Hard Boiled Eggs At The Grandparents. At Easter time all of the aunts, uncles and grandchildren would gather at my paternal grandparents’ house to celebrate the holiday. Being ethnic, immigrants and Polish Roman Catholic, there was some kind of symbolic gesture, still unknown to me, that was manifested by eating a ‘faux’ communion wafer and a peeled, hardboiled egg.
The thought of having to deal with the wafer left me in a cold sweat. We gathered together and my grandfather said a prayer, we said Amen and he came to each of us breaking off an index card sized portion of this wafer and placing it on our extended tongue. It had to have been a faux wafer, couldn’t have been the real deal because a Priest wasn’t holding it. In the 1950’s it had been drilled into us, actually beaten into us in some cases, in our religious classes that the ‘Body of Christ’ (I am not making this up) could only be handled by the Priests. And when it was placed upon your tongue and your tongue drawn back into your mouth, you could not, under any circumstances, chew this wafer. You had to let it sit on your tongue until it dissolved. The nuns had made it absolutely, and in many instances painfully, clear to us that to chew this wafer was to disrespect God and invite the eternal fires of Hell upon our souls. The problem was that when this wafer was placed upon your tongue it immediately sucked every single last drop of moisture from your mouth. I’m certain that it had plans on desiccating your entire body, but it began its dastardly work in your mouth. I suspect that the ancient Egyptians used communion wafers in their mummification practices. As this wafer adhered itself to the surface of your tongue and upper palate you found yourself unable to breath, you could not swallow, your airway began to close, your vision was tunneling and there was a ringing in your ears – you knew that death was reaching out his bony hand to grasp you and take you. You had a choice. You could chew this wafer and death would withdraw, for the moment, to be replaced at a later date with the eternal fires of hell – or you could let the wafer complete its nasty work, die and immediately enter Heaven. Every kid that I knew chose to chew and postpone the inevitable. And that was exactly what I did; surreptitiously, gumming it, moving my jaw in tiny increments until I had broken its grip and was able to breath again.
As bad as the wafer was, for me, the hardboiled egg was much, much worse. The battle with the wafer left me exhausted, covered in the sweat of battle and ready to leave the field. And yet the battle was only half played out. The hardboiled egg slowly rose on the horizon, soon dominating what had been my view of earth and sky, eliminating any hope of escape, replacing my exhaustion from the Wafer War with fear of that battle soon to come. All the Easter revelers were expected to say a prayer in unison and at the end of that prayer to eat a portion of a hardboiled egg. As the end of the prayer approached the monster fear took me: I broke into a sweat, nearly peed in my pants, was trembling, and was ready to jump out a window.
For, as a kid, I could not take a bite of this egg without gagging as if I were about to die (maybe this speaks of the relationship that I perceive religion and I to have). Gagging with a force that should have given me immediate esophageal bleeding, gagging to the point where tears are streaming from my eyes and I’m rolling on the floor unable to breath. The only thought in my mind was that this hardboiled egg sitting in my mouth, clogging my throat and scouring my nostrils with its scent had the foulest flavor I could ever have imagined. The colors and textures played their parts too. The rubbery, stained, dirty looking white and the powdery grey-green-looks like death of the yolk. How did they get the eggs to look this ugly? My hardboiled eggs don’t look like that. I knew full well that if I were to attempt to swallow this I would throw it back up. And yet, that’s what my parents are demanding that I do – swallow it! My mother saying, “Please Honey. Just try to eat a little of it”. Eat a little????? It was in my mouth and throat and God help me my stomach and I was near death. How could she hate me this much? How could I eat the potato salad with these eggs and love it? What had I done to offend her to this degree? Meanwhile all the relatives are eyeing – not me – but my parents, wondering where they went wrong raising a Polish lad that couldn’t eat hardboiled egg that manifested who knows what. After much gagging and heaving on my part I managed to palm the slimy remnants and close my hand around them (as gross as that may seem it’s not as gross as swallowing this mess), moving towards the bathroom as quickly as possible, but no so fast as to attract attention. With the bathroom door closed I furiously washed my hands and mouth. Returning to the family group my thoughts weren’t of Easter, redemption and rebirth; but only the fact that I wouldn’t have to go through this again for another year.
So, that’s what grandma cooked, maybe – hardboiled Easter eggs. Maybe. She had other culinary talents though. Whenever her grandchildren were at her home we were offered – consistently – are you ready? Flat, room temperature ginger ale and some absolutely nondescript, stale, store bought cookie. A cookie so dry that it crumbled like Dust Bowl Dirt, if you had the nerve to bite into it. Every single time that we visited her. Not much of a culinary legacy Grammy. Where’s June Cleaver or Fannie Farmer when you need them?
NEXT WEEK: THE PARENTS MAKE BREAD AND POLIO, STRAWBERRY SHORTCAKE AND UNEATEN GREEN PEASE