(by Laura Sturza)
Pick a cookbook from the 1960s or 1970s when my sister Jan and I were growing up in suburban Maryland. Any cookbook. Choose any recipe. Of those selected, 99.9 percent are ones my mother, Evelyn, did not make. In our home, no one was making casseroles or fried chicken or lasagna or an adventurous Chinese stir-fry.
In considering our childhood culinary adventure, such as it was, I credit Mom's food prepping practices as my primary source material. I hesitate to call her provisions actual cooking. My father was not involved in anything concerning food, beyond consumption. There were reasons my quite wonderful mother was kitchen averse. I'll get to them shortly.
In 1968, when I was seven and my sister was 13, we lived in an 850-square foot garden apartment with a galley kitchen too snug for more than two of us. Two years later we moved to a house more than three times bigger, with a kitchen so large, I could dance on its yellow/orange, brick-look vinyl floors while taking in the expanse of the salmon countertops. Jan didn't live in the new house for long, hightailing it for college, taking Mom's limited cooking skills with her.
Beyond pots, pans, and trays, our kitchen featured no scales or chopping knives. I do recall a single Pyrex measuring cup, which was employed for an occasional foray into baking a Duncan Hines cake.
Mom grew up poor during the Depression in a family with five kids, so she made sure we ate, but relied heavily on newly popular convenience foods, like the frozen “TV dinners” that came complete with dessert. My sister and I could barely stop laughing as we recently compiled a list of what we ate as children: fish sticks (at least they were crunchy); canned asparagus (slimy and always refused); chicken pot pies; miniature glass jars of shrimp cocktail; tuna or egg salad on white bread with generous mayo; crackers with evenly cut slabs of orange/yellow Velveeta, Laughing Cow, or occasionally the exotic gouda; the much-loved Campbell's Cream of Mushroom soup (always made with whole milk).
From nearby Rock Creek Deli, we got corned beef and roast beef for lunch sandwiches (they always handed me a sample slice while we picked our items through the glass). Breakfast
was often a sugary cereal (Apple Jacks, please) or Pop Tarts. (And my teachers wondered why I was so jumpy in the mornings.)
When my vegan husband saw our childhood food list, he was glad Jan and I had survived such processed fare. Somehow Mom turned her selection of meals into a solid variety show, and we grew to love most of her choices. When she did prep her own dishes (an occasional roast or meatballs), they were decidedly bland (she had never learned about spices), but she was immensely proud of herself, and we made a big show of our appreciation.
(sister Jan, mom Evelyn, and me)
I’ve asked my fabulous mother how she bypassed any traditional role as a Domestic Goddess. “I had a big career before I had you girls,” she said, “with my PR work and my stint at the employment agency. When you were older, I was ready to get back to work." And so she did. Our mother was one of the leading promoters of antique shows in the D.C. region and beyond, overseeing events at enormous malls, often with over 100 dealers. Meanwhile, she never lost sight of her total passion for being a mom, taking Jan and me to every cultural event she could fit into our family's busy schedule, seeing us off to incredible summer camps, and fostering a love for the arts that is still central to our lives.
While I enjoyed visiting the homes of my friends whose mothers spent days marinating and preparing elaborate meals, I think Jan and I made out quite well. And even if neither of us left our childhood home having a clue about cooking, we each became pretty savvy at assembling our own meals later. Nowadays, when we're not up for cooking, we know what to do. Pot pies are still readily available. We have never outgrown our taste for them.
Laura Sturza is an essay, news, and opinion writer living in Rockville, Maryland. She is currently working on her memoir, How I Got Married After 50 for the First Time. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, LA Weekly, and elsewhere. She can be found at laurasturza.com.
Evelyn's Ten-Minute Meal
(updated slightly to modern day standards)
1 can Campbell's Cream of Mushroom Soup
1/2 can low-fat milk
7 oz. can white tuna drained
mayonnaise to taste
4 slices sandwich bread
Combine soup, milk,and 1/2 can water in a saucepan, and heat.
Mix tuna with a reasonable amount of mayo and then add more.
Make sandwiches with tuna salad, lettuce, and tomato.