Stouffers frozen chicken pot pie. Bake at 350 degrees for 40 minutes and dinner is ready. Mashed potato flakes. Bring water and butter to a boil, add flakes and stir until thickened. Voila! Mashed potatoes. Frozen mixed vegetables. Jiffy blueberry muffin mix. “Easy!” “Fast!” Those were the two key ingredients my mother – busy with a teaching career and raising three children – was looking for when I was a child in growing up in suburban Massachusetts in the 1970’s. These are the foods I grew up eating.
She was never much interested in food. To this day, she’ll tell anyone who listens that she hates to cook. She fed us well-balanced meals, but they all came from a can or a box. I remember one night in high school when my friend Heather had dinner with us. She didn’t understand what it was that I was making. “Mashed potatoes,” I said, surprised. She had never seen mashed potatoes come from a box before, with no actual potatoes as part of the process. It had never occurred to me until I saw her shocked reaction that real potatoes should or could have been involved – the boxed variety were all I knew. And even Heather’s horror was somewhat removed from my reality. Her parents were hippies; of course they made everything from scratch.
It was some time before I began to see the virtue of the starting-from-scratch approach. Or that making a cake out of a powdery blend in a box to which one added an egg and some water was, in fact, a bit weird. Making a cake from butter and sugar and flour created something wholly different, with an entirely thicker texture and much earthier flavor. Mashed potatoes made from real potatoes and real butter tasted as if they came out of the ground, almost nutty and had a thicker, starchier texture.
But it all really changed for me with a pie. My father’s cousin Mary Ellen made a chocolate cream pie that I ate every year at the Fourth of July family picnic in Albany. My cousin Sarah and I ate most of that pie each year, returning every hour or so all afternoon for another slice. I loved the texture and lightness of the pie and its mild chocolate/cream flavor, but what made it sing to me was the crust. It was nothing like the pre-made crusts my mother bought. It was light and flaky, almost white in color. It was divine.
I started trying to make that crust when I was in high school. I used the Joy of Cooking recipe, with butter and Crisco. I made that crust over and over again, until I made it as well as Mary Ellen did. I learned that pie crusts could be flaky or crumbly, and the amount of butter or vegetable shortening determined which way the crust would go. That crust made me see food differently. It made me want to learn to cook properly.
Now, when I visit my mother, I make meals for her that she professes to greatly enjoy – a roast chicken with mashed potatoes and haricot verts, the last time I visited. She is repeatedly amazed that she has a child who likes to cook. “Do you really enjoy it?” she asks, every time. “Yes, Mom,” I assure her, “I love it.” “I never did,” she says. And when I leave, and the leftovers are gone, she reverts to eating the TV dinners stacked in her freezer.