Search
  • Eat, Darling, Eat

Following Her Own Recipe

Updated: Mar 1

(by Jennifer Barr)


My mom had an obscenely large collection of cookbooks. Yet I don’t remember ever seeing her use them. When it came to cooking (or life), my mother followed her own recipe. She had been a social worker before she met my father, a doctor, while consulting on a patient, so she loved to solve problems—and to give advice to just about anyone, whether they wanted it or not.

During my Boston childhood, even weekday family dinners were served, more often than not, in the dining room. Setting the table has always felt like a chore to me, but my mother seemed to find comfort in the familiarity of the ritual, the preparation. I have tried conveying this enthusiasm for the task to my youngest daughter, who races around the kitchen table with napkins and silverware so she can finish as quickly as possible. My mother was more patient than I ever will be.

(On Mom's lap, with brothers)

She liked to dress up. I remember a bright yellow Jackie-style coat with big black buttons that made me think she was a bumblebee when she left for a dinner party (and the lingering smell of her Chanel perfume when she kissed me goodnight after she and my father came home and I pretended to be asleep). She loved to entertain too—baked ham slices wrapped around asparagus with hollandaise sauce, or beef bourguignon with tomato aspic salad, and "pineapple surprise" for dessert, served on gold-rimmed plates. She believed that Land O’Lakes butter, lemon juice, sugar, or Hellman’s mayonnaise could improve any dish. Before a cocktail party, she explained to ten-year-old me how to pass the hors d’oeuvres on silver trays with white paper doilies, always garnished with parsley or watercress. A bartender named Jacques knew how everyone liked their drinks; my Shirley Temple came with a cocktail napkin underneath the glass, a wink, and extra maraschino cherries.

Mom always wrote out her party menus on the white side of the cardboard that she saved when my father’s shirts were returned from the dry cleaner. She had studied painting for a time, and she sketched flowers or a ribbon around the edge and drew the dishes or the cake she was planning to make. The occasion was officially marked: Times for serving hors d’oeuvres, entree, dessert, and coffee were added as reminders. At our summer house in Maine, I once came across a small stack of her collected cardboard menus in a buffet drawer while looking for napkins. She seemed to be saving them (and the many other items she squirreled away) for posterity, reminders of gatherings of family and friends past, amid a year’s supply of napkins. Many of the things she hung on to reflected her own curiosities and daily inspirations. Like an artist, she surrounded herself with talismans that she had been drawn to and clung to for no rational reason other than that she had the space for them, and so she did.

At my bridal shower, I was given foolproof recipes from the ladies who lunched for such classic dishes as Waldorf salad and something called Tuna Surprise, accompanied by salient bits of advice to avoid marital strife like “Never go to bed angry (or hungry).” Two were from my mother: “Clean up as you go along” and “Anticipate.” All these years later, I realize they weren’t far off the mark. I’m not sure she completely understood why her only daughter worked full-time, but she called me one day at my office and told me that Ina Garten was the solution to my lack of time for cooking and entertaining. And while I hated to admit it, she was right about the Barefoot Contessa. I have all of her cookbooks now.

My mother lives on at our house in small ways. Her gold-rimmed plates are back in use for fancy meals. There is a year’s supply of cocktail napkins, paper plates, and candles from her collection in my kitchen cabinets. Coasters are required in the living room. Bottles and cans are not allowed at the table. Ketchup, mustard, and salad dressing containers go on a serving plate in homage to her standards, even for casual dinners. And the fridge is always chockfull of food, in anticipation of that future guest.

---

Jennifer Barr is the director of content strategy at Indagare, a membership-based luxury travel company.

Pineapple Surprise

1/2 c. butter, softened

1 c. sugar

4 eggs

1 20-oz. can crushed pineapple, drained

1/8 t. cinnamon

dash of nutmeg

7 slices of white bread, cubed

Preheat oven to 350 F.

Cream butter and sugar with electric mixer.

Beat in eggs, one at a time.

Add spices.

Stir in drained pineapple.

Add bread and mix well.

Turn the mixture in to a buttered casserole dish.

Bake 1 hour.