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The Damn Yankee

(by Adele L. Kellman)

My parents were raised in relatively privileged homes, but their WASPy families, one from Alabama, the other from New Jersey, believed that once you were married, you supported yourselves. When my dad was offered a job as a buyer in ladies’ hats for a New Orleans department store, a wedding was quickly arranged. My mom (that “damn Yankee” in the eyes of my father’s family) was delighted that people might think their hasty marriage and move to a faraway place meant that she was pregnant (she wasn’t). I was born four years later.

Although they came from different places, my parents shared the same traditional assumptions about their roles. She would not work outside the home, except to help in his business, because, as she explained to me, a working wife undercut the husband’s “drive.” Since my mother suffered from serious depressions that started when I was born, I questioned the wisdom of this marital ideal.

My mother was in charge of our meals, and she became accomplished at it, but even though The Joy of Cooking was a Bible in our house, cooking didn’t seem to bring her any joy. The tin can kept on the stove with bacon fat from many breakfasts of bacon, eggs, and grits was a symbol of her quotidian chores. Later I learned to start stews and jambalaya by sautéing onions and celery in that bacon fat. Of course she was in charge of entertaining—making canapés for parties with ingredients I thought exotic, like peanut butter and ketchup mixed together.

Despite my father’s ideas about gender roles, he boasted that he had taught my mother to cook, and when she wasn’t well enough to be in the kitchen, he and I would try projects together. We’d watch a Louisiana TV chef make oyster stuffing and recreate it for a holiday dinner. One day my father, then in the offshore oil business, came home with a block of frozen frogs’ legs, given to him by a company employee who checked the gauges on the oil wells in the Louisiana swamps and caught frogs at the same time. I had just dissected frogs in high school biology, so I took on the assignment of preparing them for a weekend dinner. My mother wouldn’t indulge, but perhaps she wasn’t well that day.

My dad’s ideas about marital roles continued after my parents divorced. His second wife, a career woman whose widowed mother had always cooked for her, was expected to give up working and to learn to cook the daily meals. After my stepmother died, I appropriated her own much annotated copy of The Joy of Cooking and discovered a letter my father had written to her about béchamel sauce, describing how he struggled to avoid lumps (perhaps a metaphor for his life). I inherited his seriousness of purpose about food, his feeling that food mattered and should be inventive. A soup adapted from that cookbook is still one of my favorites. But I wish that my mother had experienced some of that joy.

Curried Chicken and Apple Soup

4 T. butter

1/2 c. diced onions

1 carrot, diced

2 stalks celery, diced

2 t. curry powder

1 1/2 T. flour

4 c. chicken broth

1 t. salt

1/4 t. freshly ground pepper

1/8 t. thyme

1/2 c. cooked rice

1/2 c. cooked diced chicken

1/4 c. diced raw apple

1/2 c. light cream

Melt butter in a saucepan.

Sauté the onions, carrots and celery 10 minutes but don’t let them brown.

Blend in curry powder and flour.

Warm the broth and gradually add it, stirring with a whisk until it reaches a boil.

Cook for 20 minutes over low heat.

Add the salt, pepper, and thyme, then puree in a blender.

Return mixture to saucepan, then add rice, chicken, apple, and cream.

Heat but do not boil.

Serves 6.


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