I sat down to write this story on the day my mom would have turned 95. We lost her to ALS nearly 40 years ago, way too young. Despite wanting to stay home with her as she became increasingly debilitated, I felt a responsibility to help her check one of the few boxes she could, mentally moving me from “To Do” to “Done.” She was thrilled to see her eldest launched, armed with a University of Chicago MBA and a job on Wall Street. Or so she thought. No one could imagine that I would end up with a 30+-year career in the culinary arts, that a mere six years after her passing, I would win a recipe contest and earn an apprenticeship in France that would change the trajectory of my life. It’s mildly ironic that my parents worked so hard to instill the I-can-do-anything drive in me at a time when most college-bound girls came home with a “Mrs.” and a teacher’s license. I headed to New York and ripped up Wall Street. And then, I ended up wearing an apron.
So many memories of my youth are wrapped around the exquisite specialties lovingly created by my mom and both grandmothers. Individual chess pie tarts, the freshest squeezed lemonade, crab bisque with a splash of sherry, tart June apple applesauce. The cooking sessions were always filled with tips: oil the scissors before snipping gumdrops for gumdrop cookies; float Crisco in water for a mess-free but accurate measure; wait until the water droplet rolls like a ball in the hot pan before dropping your first pancake; test the candy for the hard-crack stage using cold water. These sessions gave me the chutzpah at age six to think I was expected on call with the church ladies who paraded in with sympathy food after my beloved grandfather died. I fired up the Easy-Bake oven and cranked out a lattice-top apple pie and a two-layer chocolate cake well before the family came to town for the funeral.
Mom took Gourmet magazine in the ‘50s and ‘60s, which was unheard of in our rural southern Indiana community. Not only did she cook and love to experiment, she set a mean table. Party platters were laid out days in advance and covered with notes announcing the arrival of a certain dish, long before Post-its were invented. A carefully orchestrated timeline detailed the execution of each party with the military precision of the Entebbe Raid. These parties usually involved something more extravagant or elegant than our family dinners. But we still sat down seven nights a week at a table set with cloth napkins and placemats—all five of us expected to be present, chewing with our mouths closed, discussing the day’s events. Without a doubt, the meals after Thanksgiving that featured Turkey Tetrazzini made from the leftover holiday bird were my favorites.
Mom found her recipe in a sorority cookbook. She was a member of Kappa Alpha Theta, and as an adult, she kept active by referring promising local candidates for membership and encouraging them to consider the program for its leadership opportunities and sisterhood. It was a special bond for us to share— I was a member of the same Theta chapter as my mom; she and an aunt were both present at my initiation. (Actually, KAΘ originated with our chapter at DePauw University in Indiana in the late 19th century, although it was known as a "Greek letter fraternity for women.” The term "sorority" was invented by a Latin professor who felt the word "fraternity" was inappropriate for a group of ladies.)
The tetrazzini ingredients scream 1960s, and I have updated the recipe somewhat. While I rarely cook this way these days, it will always taste like home.
Katy Keck is a food stylist and chef based in New York City and Grand Haven, Michigan. She is a past president of Infinite Family, an international non-profit that mentors South African teens affected by HIV/AIDS, and a board member of CWS, an organization involved in hunger relief and support for immigrants and refugees. She can be found at katykeck.com, PalatePassionPurpose.com, and @katykeck.
4 oz. butter, divided
3 T. flour
1 1/2 c. milk
1 1/2 c. chicken broth
1/2 t. salt
1/4 t. ground black pepper
4 ribs celery, sliced
1 green bell pepper, stem removed, seeded and diced
6 slices bacon, cooked and crumbled (optional: reserve the fat)
4 shallots, minced
8 oz. shiitake mushrooms, sliced
1 lb. spaghetti
1/2 c. chopped parsley
1/2 c. grated Parmesan
2 c. grated cheddar cheese
4 c. chopped cooked turkey
1/4 c. panko breadcrumbs or seasoned breadcrumbs
Preheat oven to 350 F.
Butter a 9x13x2-inch 3-quart casserole.
Melt 3 T. butter and whisk in the flour to make a roux the texture of wet sand.
Let it start to bubble and continue for one minute.
Whisk in the milk and chicken broth.
Season with salt and pepper.
Add the celery and peppers, and simmer for 15 minutes until thickened, whisking occasionally.
Meanwhile, add 1 T. butter (or reserved bacon fat) to a sauté pan and add the shallots.
Sauté until golden and a bit crispy, about 8 minutes.
Drain on paper towel and set aside.
Add 2 T. butter to the pan and sauté the mushrooms until browned.
Cook spaghetti according to package directions, under-cooking by a minute or so, and drain.
In a small bowl, combine shallots, parsley, and Parmesan.
In a large bowl, combine spaghetti with mushrooms, cheddar cheese, and turkey.
Gradually add the sauce, tossing to combine.
Add half the parsley mixture and toss to combine well.
Transfer to casserole.
Top with remaining parsley mixture.
Sprinkle with bacon and breadcrumbs.
Dot with 1 T. butter.
Bake for 45 minutes until bubbly.
Serves at least 6 - 8, or more if you are willing to share.
(The mixture can be frozen, unbaked, mixing in all of the parsley mixture, but without toppings. When ready to bake, thaw and top with bacon, breadcrumbs, and a bit of fresh Parmesan or grated cheddar.)