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  • Eat, Darling, Eat

Raised Like A Soldier

Updated: Mar 1

(by JoAnn Andrus)

For any important occasion—a holiday or when company was invited—my dad was in charge of the meal. Mom couldn’t be trusted with such an important duty.

We were a military family, and most of my childhood was spent living far away from relatives. Dad was in the Air Force. Mom, who was very much in love with him, had joined the service herself to see the world and enjoyed the various places we lived. I remember her "cooking" my father's uniforms in a large pot with starch, then ironing them, with perfect seams and no wrinkles, while listening to the radio.

Mom was very proper, very Methodist. She grew up in Connecticut, with a Swedish mother and an English father. She wanted to move to New York and become a model, but Grandma wouldn't allow it, saying that was no place for a young lady. That's when she joined the military as a WAC and met my father. When they married, she didn't know how to cook, so she just opened up a cookbook and picked something.

Mom's father was a wealthy contractor who went bankrupt in the Great Depression; he killed pigeons and rabbits for their dinner table, but she couldn't eat them, and she always felt that sugar and flour were not to be wasted. She was sick for most of her childhood and had to eat liver and onions every week; a special horehound candy, sometimes used as a folk medicine, was kept in a drawer for her. In the military, everyone watched their weight, so Mom and Dad were very calorie-conscious. Baking, broiling, or boiling were the cooking methods of choice (with the occasional fried chicken and cornbread for Dad, who had grown up in the South).

During the Cold War of the 1950s, we were stationed in Fairbanks, Alaska, before it was a state. Our milk was frozen or powdered (there was no running to the store), and a turkey was stored in a duffle bag lowered out the stairwell window onto the roof of the storm porch. Mom would peel potatoes and heat up canned peas or rolls.

Military kids are different than civilians. My brother jokes that our parents raised us like soldiers. They gave us roller-skates, ice skates, bikes, sleds, as well as dolls. We had a lot to do and were required to do it outside, only coming home to eat. The house was perfect, and Mom wanted to keep it that way. There were plenty of kids to play with on base, so making friends was easy, but my mother was surprisingly aloof. One day when I was roller-skating around our building in Alaska, a lady with a houseful of kids was sitting on her porch. Mom was sitting at the other end of the building, so I told the lady, “Why don't you go talk to my mom?” The lady soon returned to her own porch, and when I went home, my mother pulled me aside and said in her low stern voice, "Don't do that again. I will pick my own friends."

It didn’t bother Mom that she wasn’t a good cook; she thought it comical. After all, she wasn’t much of an eater either; she drank coffee all day. We all laughed when she had to throw baking soda on a piece of flaming meat. My brother and I began to think of baking soda as a seasoning to be scraped off just before consumption. It was a staple in our kitchen, often used for soaking a pan that had blackened food stuck to the bottom.

I learned that if you wanted it, you had to make it yourself. I still have the little cake decorating kit I used for our birthday cakes, after I baked them. But somehow, on a very special occasion, Mom managed to make gingerbread with homemade warm lemon sauce poured on top. The first time she made this recipe was in Alaska; maybe those long, dark, cold winters made her hungry.

Mom and I had our differences, the most aggravating of which was her inclination to believe in “guilty until proven innocent." But we had our moments of laughing until tears flowed from our eyes or she peed her pants, and then of course it was even funnier. Healthy belly-laughing. Even when she was in her 90s, we laughed, mostly at old memories and the fact that she couldn’t hear well, misunderstanding the conversation. Laughter was the best medicine for her, right up to age 96.

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JoAnn Andrus is an actress in northern California. She can be found on Backstage.

Gingerbread

(Adapted from The Fannie Farmer Cookbook)

1 1/2 c. flour

1/2 c. sugar

2 t. baking powder

1 t. ginger

optional: 1/2 t. cinnamon

optional: 1/4 t. ground cloves

optional: 1/4 t. ground nutmeg

1/4 t. salt

1/4 c. butter

1/2 c. boiling water

1/2 c. molasses

Preheat oven to 325 F.

Sift together flour, sugar, baking powder, ginger, salt, and optional cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg.

Combine butter and boiling water.

When butter melts, add molasses.

Stir into flour mixture and beat just enough to make a smooth batter.

Spread in a buttered 8- or 9-inch square pan.

Bake about 35 minutes.

Lemon Sauce

1 1/2 T. cornstarch

2 T. lemon juice

1 1/2 c. hot water

1/4 c. sugar

1 1/2 T. butter

grated rind of 1/4 lemon

Combine cornstarch and sugar in a pan over low heat.

Add hot water slowly, stirring constantly until mixture thickens.

Add lemon juice and butter.