(by Sue Lange)
My mother was the oldest of six kids. Because my grandmother was busy having babies all the time, my mom had to do the cooking for the ever-expanding brood. She did not have the good fortune to be born into a family with an ethnic cuisine. She had no aunts who could show her how to make ravioli or kugel. She had to figure out how to make meals on her own (this, during the ‘40s and ‘50s when cooking was done the hard way).
By the time my siblings and I came along, it was the ‘60s, a time of great innovation in American cuisine. Velveeta, Spam, TV dinners, and other fine gastronomical offerings came into their own in this decade. You can imagine how my mother—raising four kids while pursuing a college education via night school—availed herself of Kraft and Swanson. Her meals were simple, quick to fix, and rib-sticking. They were not politically correct in a modern, health-conscious sort of way, but they kept us fed on a tight budget.
I don’t remember a lot about the meals, but I remember the accoutrements—the electric frying pan, the pressure cooker, and especially the set of Pyrex bowls: four sizes in yellow, green, red, and blue. If you grew up in this time period, no doubt your household had this set of iconic bowls too.
Mom always put mashed potatoes in the green bowl. Dad used the yellow one for popcorn. The small blue was worthless except for cranberry sauce at Thanksgiving. Because cranberry sauce was such an unpopular dish, only one can was ever needed, and the blue bowl was perfect for that.
My siblings and I now live in far-flung places: Pennsylvania, Maine, Michigan, and Texas. Once a month, we stay in touch via Zoom. Been doing it long before Covid hit. We reminisce a lot, mostly about our crazy mother who, somewhere in her mid-50s and after my parents divorced, sold the ancestral home to move somewhere north of the Arctic Circle to teach elementary school. She stayed in Alaska for 30 years until the cold got to her, and she up and moved to Texas one particularly frigid day.
Despite that quick move, my mother was not a gypsy. She was an army brat throughout her school years and was not fond of the rootlessness. When I was ten, we moved from a small farming community in the northernish regions of Michigan’s lower peninsula to a bustling small city 90 miles north of Chicago. I was young, and the move traumatized me. We moved from a fairyland where kids could roam free through fields, across streams, into the woods. It was safe, and our parents never knew where we were or cared. The thought of a city, with its sidewalks and traffic and crime and restrictions, frightened me. I whined incessantly about it.
“But why do we have to leave?” I’d cry.
“Because your father found a better job. Don’t you want to start wearing clothes without holes and shoes that actually fit you?"
“No!” I shouted. “I won’t have any friends.”
Then out came the stories. The evidence of a painful childhood, the likes of which no one since Joseph getting sold by his brothers to Egypt could possibly surpass in abuse.
“When I was your age, I never had any friends. We didn’t stay in a place long enough to make any. I went to five different high schools, the last one in Germany. Try and make lasting relationships under those conditions. You kids don’t know how good you have it. After a year, you’ll still see the same people and live in the same house. Try making friends with people that don’t speak your language.”
What could I do but crawl back to my soon-to-be-vacated room and prepare for the worst? I could never win against such impressive street cred.
A couple of months ago in one of our Zoom sessions, my siblings and I got on the topic of those Pyrex bowls. My younger brother inherited them—minus the red one which got lost somewhere along the way. That set of bowls held lots of memories. I decided I was going to find a replacement set at a vintage store and give one to each of us. It wasn’t long before I found them. The younger brother got the red one to complete his set. Sister got the blue one. Older brother the green, and I kept the yellow. For popcorn.
It was sort of painful breaking up the set. Broke my heart. Now I’m collecting up singles as I come across them, in the hope of eventually having a full set again. So far I’ve found the small blue one. The one for cranberry sauce. I never eat the stuff, but I don’t care. I’m on my way to a set of golden Pyrex memories. Who says you can’t go home again?
Here’s to my mother and her ‘60s/’70s mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, and Cheese Whiz dishes. We miss them so.
Sue Lange is the producer of the soon to be created "Le Bon Chef," a comedy-drama about a 50-something chef in a high-end restaurant on the brink of bankruptcy.
1960s Mac and Cheese
1 lb. elbow macaroni
4 T. margarine
1/2 c. flour
3 c. milk
half a brick of Velveeta, cubed
salt, as needed
any amount of leftover ham, cubed
Cook the macaroni according to the box instructions.
Melt margarine in a large pot.
Stir in flour until smooth.
Add milk slowly, stirring to prevent lumps. Cook until thickened.
Add Velveeta, stirring until melted and smooth.
Remove from heat and stir in macaroni and ham.
Dump contents of pot into the green bowl and salt as needed.