(by Marilyn Strange)
As far back as I can remember, my mother hated to cook. She loved food but hated preparing it. She grew up in a household with a maid and a cook who made whatever was needed. My grandmother had a flair for the exotic, wanting concoctions from her travels and imagination, but my mother’s taste was much more plain. She also had a lifelong battle with weight and, as an ex-hippie, a resentment of the call to domesticity from her youth in the 1950s. So, in what was a somewhat forward-thinking arrangement for the 1980s and ‘90s, our daily family dinner was my father’s responsibility. He loved to cook, and even after he put in a full day at the office, it was his stress release. Hers was cleaning the kitchen and tidying up afterward.
There were certain times in our lives when my mother’s love and devotion to my sisters and me overcame her hatred of preparing meals. She rose to the occasion when we were sick—she believed in the healing properties of eggs on toast. Our school lunches always had little messages scrawled on the brown paper bag, letting us know the love she put into even the standard peanut butter and jelly. Every once in a while, she would fancy a pot roast and put her all into preparing it for that single night, with the magical knob of a Crockpot; then, remembering how much she hated cooking, her strike against what she considered drudgery would resume.
But there was something special about the holidays. The one meal she made every year was Christmas dinner: roasted turkey, Stove Top stuffing, canned green beans, a round brick of cranberry sauce, and “doctored” sweet potatoes. It was her tradition, something she had inherited from her mother, and her maternal sense of duty compelled her to pass it along to her daughters. She was so dedicated to this meal, she even prepared it one year just three days after having a hysterectomy.
She would wake before the sun and begin with the turkey, religiously basting it breast side down so the juices flowed to the favorite part of the bird. She even gave it a name, introducing us to “Henrietta” or “Gladys” when we came down to the kitchen. After the presents were opened and the Christmas morning excitement died down, the cleaning frenzy began. “Take your crap to your room!” Mother yelled to everyone. Dogs were ushered from one room to another while vacuuming took place. The good dishes were brought out from hiding. Usually, she yelled at my father to start a fire, even though it was 70 degrees outside in Southern California, not to mention 75-plus in the house from the oven. It was the holiday, and we would all boil, if necessary, for tradition.
As the turkey got closer to the finish line for the 2 o’clock meal, preparation of the sides began, and I was thrilled to be the helper/taster for the sweet potatoes. The sweet potatoes were her moment of glory. She had clipped the recipe from a magazine long before I was born, with the excitement of being married and starting a family of her own. And the sweet potatoes were her one creative addition from the traditional meal she’d had growing up. It was always an occasion to take out her frustrations about the day by mashing those canned yams into a smooth puddle. She never measured anything, but a tablespoon of cinnamon with three packets of Equal were mixed together. (My mother had grown accustomed to the taste of sugar substitute from years of battling the real deal.) Then she’d hand me the tasting spoon, and I would give my critique. “Maybe a little more orange juice” was my usual response. It always took quite a bit of doctoring before it had the nice balance of citrus, spice, and sweet.
As my sisters and I grew older, each of us went down our own culinary path. My sisters
followed my mother: hating to cook, but doing so when needed. I fell in love with cooking, much like my father. And I couldn’t wait to pass down the holiday traditions of my mother and grandmother. When I got married, I was excited to host my first Christmas meal, and my mother was excited to turn the reins over to someone else, allowing her to enjoy the Christmas meal as a guest for the first time in a long time. I was understandably nervous, but my mother was patient and kind, on the phone coaching me during the early morning hours: “Remember, the turkey goes in breast side down” or (in amazement), “You made the cranberry sauce fresh?” But she still made the sweet potatoes, and I was still her tester. It was the only way to do it right.
Marilyn Strange is a proud theatre teacher at Newbury Park High School who lives in Agoura Hills, California. She can be found at local restaurants and farmers markets, enjoying food and eating.
Candied Sweet Potatoes
2 cans, 16 oz. each, candied yams in syrup
1 - 2 T. cinnamon
3 - 4 T. sugar (or sugar substitute)
1⁄4 c. orange juice
8 - 10 oz. marshmallows
Preheat oven to 350 F.
Drain yams of syrup.
In a mixing bowl, mash yams until smooth.
(My family liked the consistency of baby food.
Add cinnamon, sugar, and orange juice, mixing well.
Place in an ovenproof casserole, cover, and bake for 30 minutes.
Uncover, add marshmallows on top, and bake 5 - 10 minutes more, or until the
marshmallows are golden brown.
Makes 10 - 12 servings.