My Mother's Cookbook
My parents shared an appreciation of good food that lasted throughout the fifty-two years of their life together. Food was a part of their daily conversation, from routine discussions of what to have for lunch or dinner, to the more considered topic of what to serve visiting family members or friends invited over for a meal. They talked about the food as my mother prepared it, while they were eating it and, afterwards, if the results had been especially delicious or when adjustments were needed to make a particular effort taste better. They conversed in detail about the dishes they’d tasted in restaurants and wanted to reproduce at home. Some of these adapted recipes were so successful that they became family favorites and gained a place in my mother’s cookbook.
My father’s oldest sister and her husband, who were teachers in the Chicago public schools, retreated during the summer months to their cottage at Lake Mille Lacs, Minnesota. The lake, curiously misnamed by the French to mean “a thousand lakes” was, perhaps, a reference to the many lakes the explorers encountered in that land of abundant lakes. Our occasional visits to Aunt Gatsie and Uncle Bud’s lakeside cottage were much-anticipated summertime events.
Once we reached central Minnesota, tall red and white pine trees loomed above the car on either side of the narrow two-lane road, and those dense stands of trees seemed more like the real forests I’d read about than the trees that usually identified rivers in Iowa. There weren’t nearly as many lakes in Iowa either. My brothers and I liked to go down to the shore in front of the cabin in our bathing suits, stepping from one big rock to another until we reached water deep enough for swimming. Mille Lacs is the second largest lake in Minnesota, so big that we couldn’t see land on the opposite side, and that seemed strange indeed to children accustomed to expanses of corn and soybean fields as far as the eye could see.
The scent of dry pine needles permeated the sun-warmed summer air during the day. At night the wind rustled the tree branches as I fell asleep in the second-floor bedroom that was separated from the other bedrooms by a partition instead of a real wall. On drives around the lake we saw wild rice growing in the shallow waters of the lake, and the adults told us about the history and cultivation of this unusual food. Wild rice is a kind of grass that the Ojibwe Indians have harvested from their birch canoes in late summer and fall, for as long as they have inhabited the land. The process is time and labor intensive, so true wild rice is expensive, compared to the every-day rice we knew about, and difficult to find in grocery stores.
I suppose Mom and Dad began developing their idea for Wild Rice Dressing after they had purchased some of the precious commodity on one of our trips to Lake Mille Lacs. I don’t know if their recipe is based on one they’d eaten or if they created it “from scratch”, but this delicious stuffing became a required complement to turkey, duck or pheasant at our dinner table. To this day, I am certain that my grown sons would be disappointed if I served them a Thanksgiving turkey without it.
In the last quarter of the 20th Century, commercial production of wild rice in California resulted in greater availability at reduced cost. But the product is decidedly inferior to the true wild rice that Native Americans still harvest by hand from Minnesota lakes and process according to their traditional methods. The White Earth Land Recovery Project (WELRP) is a Native American organization that strives to preserve the integrity of wild rice and offers it for sale at wild rice.
Wild Rice Dressing
1/2 cup wild rice
2 cups dry bread crumbs
1 14-ounce can chicken broth
1 tube ground sausage
1 medium onion, chopped
1 cup of chopped celery
1 green or red pepper, chopped
2 cloves garlic
1 teaspoon dry sage
½ teaspoon dry thyme
Salt and pepper to taste
Wash and cook the wild rice until almost done, according to package directions. Drain well. Add to bread crumbs that have been moistened with chicken broth.
Brown the sausage, breaking it into small pieces, until no longer pink. Add to bread crumbs and rice.
In the same skillet, cook the garlic, onion, pepper and celery in pork fat until just done. If needed, use a little butter or olive oil to keep the vegetables from sticking. Add to rice, bread crumbs and meat. Stir in the egg, sage, thyme, salt and pepper. Check seasoning; add more, according to taste.
Stuff the fowl with the dressing and roast according to your favorite method. If you prefer to cook the dressing separately, place in a greased casserole, cover and bake for one hour at 350 degrees, basting with juices from the bird and the remaining chicken broth, stirring occasionally. Serves four to six people.
My father became a District Court Judge for the state of Iowa when I was a teenager. For the remainder of his working career, he traveled by car to county courthouses throughout the District he served in southwestern Iowa. He liked to have family members come along to keep him company, and I gained my first real practice negotiating narrow rural highways while driving him to court. Sitting in a courtroom all day was not as exciting as movies and television shows would have us believe, but the monotony was relieved when we went out to lunch.
Dad had no trouble finding willing companions when he was holding court in Council Bluffs, because he often drove across the Missouri River to the stockyard area of south Omaha, Nebraska, for lunch. The Omaha stockyards had been the third largest in the country and were still functioning in the middle decades of the 20th Century. A thriving meat packing industry grew up around the stockyards, as did numerous restaurants that featured tender grain-fed beef. Dad favored the restaurants owned and run by Italian families. Pasta was always part of the meal, usually served with tomato sauce, a natural partner to beef. But he preferred the restaurants’ plain spaghetti lightly browned in butter or olive oil and garlic, and this became an easy-to-prepare side dish at home. Fried spaghetti makes an excellent meatless dinner served with a tossed salad, although dinners without meat were rare in my family.
½ pound fresh or dried spaghetti
2-3 tablespoons butter or olive oil
2 cloves minced garlic
Cook spaghetti al dente, according to package instructions. Drain. Cook garlic in a skillet with butter or oil for 3 minutes on medium heat. Add spaghetti and stir until lightly browned. Season with salt and pepper and serve with grated parmesan cheese. Serves two.
Another restaurant that my parents enjoyed in Omaha was King Fong’s. The stained glass windows and ornate spires of the building’s exterior foretold the wondrous experience awaiting us. Walking up marble steps to the second floor, with a brass hand rail to guide us, my brothers and I felt like we were entering a foreign country. The high-ceilinged dining room featured camphor wood carvings of dragons and silk embroidered wall hangings. I liked to run my fingers over the patterned inlay of mother-of-pearl on the teakwood tables and then bring my palms to rest on the cool marble top. On special occasions we ate in one of the private dining rooms behind the big main room where Asian designs of gold gilt framed the doors, and my father had only to push a buzzer to summon a waiter to serve us.
Both American and Cantonese meals were offered, but my parents always chose the latter. Although the dishes had been altered to appeal to the American palate, King Fong’s was the closest Chinese restaurant to our home town forty-five miles away and the only chance they had to taste that ancient cuisine. The restaurant still exists today, with the exotic ambience and quality of food intact.
My brothers and I liked the crispy noodles that were served with chow mien, and they called soy sauce “bug juice” in an attempt to convince me that the sauce was made of black bugs. But our parents had their minds on the food, how it tasted and was prepared. Some of the dishes they tried to reproduce at home, and their most successful effort was Pork Fried Rice. The recipe lacks egg, a typical ingredient of Chinese fried rice, the rice is cooked in the style of a risotto, and it makes a fine one-dish meal.
Pork Fried Rice
2 pounds of pork, diced
1/3 cup olive oil
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 large onion, diced
4-5 stalks celery, chopped fine
1 cup long-grained rice
3 cups chicken broth
1 14-ounce can bean sprouts or 1 ½ cups fresh bean sprouts
Optional condiment: Slivered almonds, crisped over medium heat in a dry skillet
In a large skillet, brown the pork until cooked through. Set aside in a large bowl. In the same skillet cook the garlic, onion and celery in the pork fat (add olive oil if more fat is needed) until done but still crunchy. Add to the pork.
In the same skillet, brown the rice in olive oil. Add chicken broth a little at a time, simmering until the rice is cooked and broth absorbed.
Add the meat, vegetables and bean sprouts and cook for several minutes, stirring until sprouts are heated through or done, depending on whether they are canned or fresh.
Add optional slivered almonds and serve with “bug juice.” Serves four.
Cooks today have more resources at hand to reproduce restaurant dishes and ethnic cuisine at home. Countless cookbooks are available to us and the Internet is a quick source for reliable recipes. Amateur cooks don’t have to spend as much time as my parents did analyzing the ingredients and testing proportions until the desired result is reached. Like all couples who stay together through a long-term marriage, my parents had their share of troubles, quarrels and misgivings. But their enjoyment of good food and the patience and determination required to create satisfying meals at home surely helped them to stay married until death parted them.
Recipes are from the collection of Anna May Cullison; other recipes can be accessed by Margaret's author page.