The modern culinary conveniences for housewives of the ‘60s and ‘70s spoke to my mother in a loud, clear voice. Why spend long hours in a hot kitchen toiling over a dinner made from scratch when the grocery store is full of fun and easy shortcuts? We ate a lot of Green Giant boil-in-the-bag broccoli in cheese sauce, instant mashed potatoes, and Mrs. Paul’s Fish Sticks, with their packet of “miracle sauce"—basically finely diced pickles that my mother sometimes tried to transform into tartar sauce with a little Miracle Whip.
We were raised on Miracle Whip, which my mother considered the same as mayonnaise. It’s not. I’d go to a friend’s house for lunch, and the mom would make us tuna fish sandwiches mixed with mayonnaise. But when I tried making tuna salad at home, it tasted too sweet. This mystery remained well into my teens when I noticed the label on the jar at a friend’s: Hellman’s. But until the she died, my mother was committed to the whip of miracles.
I want to paint the picture of my mother’s presentation of her fish stick dinner. We owned a lot of those homemade potholders made of multicolored loops woven on small looms by my siblings and me. My mother would scatter a few of them, sauce-stained and scorch-marked, on the table, then place the cookie sheet carrying their fish stick cargo on top.
Sometimes my dad would pull his gallon jug of Gallo Hearty Burgundy out from under his chair and pour himself a glass. And in the background the Vietnam War unfolded on the evening news. Always there. The war of my childhood. My mother would always ask my father to turn off the TV while we ate dinner, and every night he would turn the volume down but not off. Jungle images flickered in the middle of suburban Wilmington, Delaware.
Mom also used a harvest gold electric percolator and made the worst coffee—more like brown water. In the coffee hierarchy, in descending order of potability, there is brewed coffee, instant coffee, and Mom’s coffee. So many times when we visited, she would pour me a cup and settle down to relate some story she’d heard at bridge club. I drank the stuff, and lived to tell the tale.
It is interesting to me that my mother, who married at 22 and became a housewife, urged me to be more independent. She wanted me to go to an out-of-state college. Yes, she wanted me to marry an orthodontist like my father and live next door, but when that didn’t happen, she was proud of me and let me know it.
The crowded countertop of my mother’s kitchen included a wonderful old cookie jar that had cookies in bas-relief all over the outside, but never any cookies inside. Saltines lived inside that cookie jar, whole sleeves of those square crackers. After my mother died, I kept that cookie jar, phantom saltines haunting me still. It does not remind me of homemade cookies, but it does remind me of my cheerful mom, grabbing a saltine after a busy day with her cronies, happily slapping a convenient meal together—quite possibly fish sticks, of course with miracle sauce in my mother’s house of miracles.
Trina Tjersland is an actress and former drama teacher living in Delaware. She can be found at Backstage.
Tuna Salad Sandwiches
7 oz. can tuna fish
1/3 c. Miracle Whip
salt and pepper to taste
1/4 c. celery, chopped
1/4 c. onion, chopped
4 slices Wonder Bread, toasted
Drain the tuna fish and mix with Miracle Whip, salt and pepper.
Mix in optional celery and onion celery and onion.
Spread tuna salad evenly on two pieces of toast.
Place a piece of lettuce on top of the tuna salad.
Top with remaining slices of toast.
Cut each sandwich in half, and serve with saltines from the cookie jar.
Try to explain to your children why their tuna sandwiches don’t taste like the tuna sandwiches at their friends’ houses.