My Mother’s Cookbook;
Salad Dressings for Summer Fruits and Vegetables
In the Midwest during the 1940s fresh fruits and vegetables were scarce until the weather warmed enough for local farmers and gardeners to begin working their wonders with the soil. During the winter some families might be lucky enough to enjoy home canned peaches, pears, tomatoes, or corn while others depended upon the commercially canned products that paled in comparison. So summer was welcomed not only for its warm temperatures and long days, but for the fruits and vegetables produced during the summer growing season.
My family enjoyed the culinary variations made from this bounty that came from Mother’s kitchen. She was skilled at finding the best locally grown leaf lettuce, chard, tomatoes, white and red radishes, and green onions for her salads. She searched out the first sour red cherries, apples, and rhubarb of the season to make pies so rich they hardly needed ice cream on the side. We ate browned new potatoes and carrots with pork roast and gravy and green beans galore simmered with bits of bacon.
Mom wasn’t a gardener herself, preferring to concentrate on homemaking chores inside the house, except during World War II when people were asked to grow victory gardens to help prevent food shortages. Ours was a rather pathetic effort that, because of the ineptness of the gardeners, was planted in an uneven crescent shape that my father dubbed the “rainbow garden.” We gave up on that venture after the threat of food scarcity was over.
My mother knew the people in town who kept gardens and were willing to sell their produce. I often went with her, sometimes ending up in a remote corner of the township at a modest, well-tended house that I’d never seen before. Often we’d go to Mrs. Book’s house, which was an old Victorian style that housed her many children and even some of their off-spring. I’d trudge up and down the rows of vegetables behind them, Mom saying what she wanted and Mrs. Book pointing out her best choices for that particular day. The hot sun was often intensified by high humidity from recent rains, those two essentials for a good growing season. Bugs swarmed around my bare arms and legs, and I’d take refuge in the shade to play with the kittens that Mrs. Book’s cats produced with amazing regularity.
Farmers came to our town on Saturdays and sold fruits and vegetables from the back of their trucks, which they parked on the downtown square. A truck bed would be piled high with watermelons and the seller always cut a plug in the one Mom thought looked best, a guarantee of perfect rosy ripeness that watermelon lovers no longer expect when buying from today’s chain supermarkets. Roadside vegetable stands proliferated along the highways and often consisted of no more than a sturdy table set up on the edge of a farmer’s field and manned by his children. When my father went out of town on business, he might bring home the first tender sweet corn of the season or juicy tart tomatoes, a much-anticipated event in early August. After I grew up and moved away, I always planned my yearly visits home to coincide with the ripening of those two local delicacies. Add to them a tender Iowa steak or pork chop seared to perfect doneness in an iron skillet, and you have the ultimate late-summer Midwestern dining experience.
The salad I remember best from my childhood reflected that emphasis on good fresh ingredients. Mom would arrange thinly sliced tomatoes, sweet onion, and cucumbers on salad plates for each family member, and we made our own dressing from cruets of oil and vinegar at the table. It took some practice to get the proportions right, and learning how to turn oil and vinegar into delicious dressing was probably my first salad-making lesson. Topped with salt and pepper, that simple salad tasted as fresh as the breezes wafting in the dining room door behind me. After we’d eaten, while everyone else lingered over iced tea and conversation, I’d carry my salad plate to the kitchen and lean over the sink to drink the remaining dressing mixed with juice from the tomatoes.
The dressing my mother used most often for lettuce salads consisted of lemon and vegetable oil. She would squeeze a lemon into her glass juice squeezer and then add just enough oil, salt, and pepper to the squeezer and then pour the dressing over the salad ingredients. I never have learned to make this dressing by instinct as my mother did, so I rely on measuring the ingredients and have added balsamic vinegar and substituted olive oil, two ingredients more popular now than then.
Mom’s Vinaigrette Dressing with Lemon
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
½ cup olive oil
Salt and pepper
Variations to add: ¼ teaspoon dry mustard
½ teaspoon dried or 1 teaspoon fresh basil
Minced garlic clove
Mix ingredients well before tossing with your favorite combination of greens.
Every time my mother made her favorite fruit dressing she exclaimed about how delicious it tasted. This was not vanity on her part, because the recipe was given to her by the daughter-in-law of one of her closest friends. Mom always appreciated the camaraderie of shared recipes from friends and acquaintances and treasured their newness and difference from her own collection of recipes. The dressing is equally compatible with summer and winter fruits. Slices of melon such as cantaloupe or honey dew, peaches, pears, apricots, and grapes in summer and winter staples like oranges and apples all go well with this dressing. Mom especially liked the flavors of grapefruit and avocado with this dressing.
Floss’s Honey Dressing
2/3 cup sugar
1 teaspoon dry mustard
1 teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon celery seed
1 cup vegetable oil
1/3 cup honey
1 tablespoon lemon juice
5 tablespoons vinegar
Mix the dry ingredients. Add oil gradually and beat well, then add the lemon juice and vinegar. The amount of sugar can be decreased and honey portion increased according to taste.
When I was a kid, I could never quite see the logic of wilted lettuce. Why would you put a hot dressing on fresh leaf lettuce? I thought lettuce should be crisp and cool, not wilted to eat on a hot summer’s day. Mom didn’t share my opinion and often, when she’d rounded up some particularly good leaf lettuce from one of her gardening sources, she would make wilted lettuce for dinner. Admittedly the aroma of bacon mixed with garlic and vinegar made my mouth water, and the salad tasted just as good as the smell of warmed dressing had promised. Mother usually eschewed sweetening in recipes that weren’t of the desert variety, the honey dressing above being an exception. Her wilted lettuce dressing does not contain the sugar that most recipes specify, but a teaspoon of sugar may be added for those who prefer a sweet and sour flavor.
2 cups shredded leaf lettuce
½ small onion, chopped
2 strips of bacon cut into small pieces
1 clove garlic, minced
2 tablespoons vinegar
Salt and pepper
Wash and shred lettuce, add chopped onion. Brown the bacon and remove bacon bits with slotted spoon to paper towel. Add vinegar and garlic to the bacon fat, heat and then toss with lettuce, bacon bits, salt, and pepper to taste. Serve immediately.
This old-fashioned dish originated with the Dutch and was served in many variations at Midwestern tables. In 1869 my mother’s paternal grandparents emigrated from a German town near the Dutch border to homestead farmland in eastern Nebraska. She identified with the heritage of her father’s people and enjoyed preparing the specialties passed on through his family. Stewed chicken with noodles, hot German potato salad, cookies spiced with ginger or caraway seed, and festive New Year’s cakes made in the old cast iron mold, with long handles to hold over the oven fire, that she’d inherited from her German relatives. Wilted lettuce was just one of those dishes that brought back her own childhood memories of good food and a close-knit family circle.
Recipes are from the collection of Anna May Cullison.