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  • Eat, Darling, Eat

Sole Custody

Updated: Mar 2

(by Jeanne Hunter)

The only meal I remember my mother preparing was a summer salad when I was three, in London just before the Second World War began. She had bought half a pound of ham at the deli, but I refused to eat it, and my father ate mine as well as his own. Within minutes, my mother, father, and five-year-old sister were bright green and writhing in agony. An ambulance arrived, and I was deposited with a neighbor. It turned out that the deli man had cut the ham with the same knife he used to cut blocks of rat poison. My family was hospitalized for days. I was fine and enjoyed the change.

With the war came food rationing and the evacuation of children from London. I was sent to live with a farm family on the east coast of England and developed a greedy craving for chocolate because all the adults gave me their four-ounces-a-week coupons. The army had sent my father to train in Scotland, and my mother was given a job overseeing a large roomful of ladies in snoods measuring bullets and shells to be sent to the front. She met a Battle of Britain pilot and joined him on a weekend pass at a famous hotel on the cliffs in Cornwall. He was killed soon after on a bombing mission in North Africa, and she was so racked with guilt over the episode that she wrote and confessed to my father, who immediately began divorce proceedings.

The judge excoriated my mother and awarded sole custody to my father, which broke her heart, and my father, thinking it would make things less complicated, told us our mother had died in the London bombings. (He also destroyed all photos of her.) Four years later, I was playing netball (like American basketball) at school and saw a woman on the sidelines waving at me. “Are you Jeanne?” she asked. “I’m your mother.” Quite the shock, but children are remarkably resilient. She kidnapped me from my evacuation home, and we spent a blissful clandestine six months together, sleeping in a featherbed in her rented room at the top of a cottage, until my father found out and shipped me off to one of his ten siblings.

When the war was over and I was collected back to London, I would take the Underground to meet my mother at Lyons Corner House in Leicester Square after school. She always ordered beans on toast with chips (a/k/a French fries) and spaghetti on the side, followed by ice cream with chocolate sauce. Strange treats, but my father insisted on green vegetables cooked to a grey mess, so I was delighted.

After I married and moved to New York, my mother came for a visit; she loved the city and particularly my American husband, Steve Elliot, who took her to a boxing match at Madison Square Garden the night she arrived. I prepared dinner the next evening, including chocolate mousse, a recipe from my new sister-in-law. My mother declared me a gourmet cook, although it was the only dessert I knew how to prepare.

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Jeanne Hunter's memoir is Where Has The Evening Gone.

Chocolate Mousse

6 oz. fine imported dark chocolate

1 c. heavy cream

6 eggs, separated

1 t. vanilla extract

whipped cream and chocolate shavings for garnish

In the top of a double boiler, melt the chocolate.

Add egg yolks one at a time, stirring constantly.

Add vanilla extract.

Whip egg whites to soft peaks, and gently fold in.

Scrape mixture into a serving bowl or individual dishes, and refrigerate for at least 2 hours.

Garnish with whipped cream and chocolate shavings.