January 8, 2018
Sixty Years a Chef
MONTPELIER – During my bachelor days, about six decades ago, I was an outstanding cook. It's quite probable that no one else on the earth held that opinion, but I was quite happy with my prowess and the victuals it produced.
In my early days in the Adirondacks, I had only a two-burner white gas-fuel Coleman, so the cuisine tended to run to boiled delicacies, rather than fried. But once I was able to move into an unfurnished $10-a-month apartment, I spread my wings. Ralph Ducharme, whose every word and deed personified "elderly rascal," sold me, for $35, a three-burner propane range with an oven, and I was at last able to express my culinary talents. The stove's oven door was twisted and wouldn't shut properly, but a piece of lath braced against an opposite wall took care of that perfectly.
I had over one hundred pounds of venison to eat that first year, so a lot of potatoes, onions, and canned vegetables passed over that stove. On the frequent occasions that I just couldn't face another deer-meat dinner, I made what became my signature supper for that lonely, but creative period. Greasing an 8 x 10-inch baking tin (a gift from my mother that I still have), I filled it with Grandma Brown's baked beans, which are mushed up, instead of individual. On top of that, a can of Spam, sliced to fill the pan. Weak with anticipation, I sprinkled the whole mess with brown sugar and popped it into the oven at 350º for 15 minutes. With a quart of milk on the side and a magazine for entertainment, I could inhale that in very few minutes. I doubt that today I could eat more than a quarter of it at a time – and Spam, whatever they may say, ain't what it was – but I keep the ingredients handy, just in case the spirit moves.
Another delicacy was diced venison mixed into scrambled eggs, onions, and cheese; but the meat was so dry by the time I got to it that a few chunks ("junks" in Adirondack vernacular) of salt pork had to go in with it to make it palatable.
Into this Siberian sameness sailed Mother, who'd been raised proper and had her own notions of what were approved comestibles. I'd never met, and haven't yet, a more creative and imaginative person. These traits were a bit constrained by a weekly food budget of $7, but she did pretty well with that. Once, when she asked for a quarter-pound of hamburger, the butcher cracked, "Havin' company?"
She knew how much I liked hotdogs, so one Christmas, without money for gifts, she made a little booklet of coupons redeemable for various services – car wash, back rub, and the like. She used her sewing machine to perforate the pages between the coupons. I was so touched by the gift that I still have it, almost pristine – except for "One week of hotdogs fixed seven different ways." I used all but one of those.
As the kids came along and grew up, Mother took over the entire food service operation. As a kitchen designer, she favored a "magic triangle," bounded by the sink, an island stove, and the refrigerator. I was not allowed in there during dinner preparation. Later, as the kids left, she felt free to sleep in a bit in the morning, and I was free to do my thing. I always made coffee first and took her a cup, dipping a finger into it and rubbing it under her nose. Then it was back to the kitchen, where a bit of Bisquick and all the ingredients of a world-class scrambled egg pervaded the house so beautifully that they always elicited the loud cry, "Have you got the fan on out there?" I did...usually.
Well, that's all gone by, at least for now and the foreseeable future. Just about the time she recognized my brilliance at scrambled eggs (I even once showed the chefs at a Quebec fishing camp the proper technique), she was off to the nursing home. She still keeps her hand in administratively, and still desires the delicacies she once cooked without batting an eye. But now, when she orders an oyster stew, I have to go online and find a recipe I can handle. Turns out there's not much to it – if you know how. So far, judging by her comments, I've managed to get it right – though last time I forgot the celery.
Just like most of the rest of us, she goes through phases of desired dishes, and at the moment it's salmon wiggle. The salmon I can handle; it comes in a can. But the white sauce – flour, melted butter, half-and-half, seasonings, garden peas – I don't know about that. Nevertheless, on my next foray to the supermarket, I'll gather the makings, print out the recipe in 18-point type, and sally into a region previously untrodden. The old oven has been replaced by a microwave, and the gas burners to an induction coil cooktop. But the tension is the same, the probability of failure still acute, the disbelief unchanged at a successful outcome. The satisfaction is the same, too, if she opens the wide-mouth thermos, sniffs it, takes a taste and smiles. She'll never know I'd rather be baking Spam, brown sugar, and Grandma Brown's