Childhood Lows: The Dreaded Meal


“Food like Mother used to make!”  This is usually the ultimate compliment from those of us who look back fondly on the many delicious meals that our mothers lovingly prepared for us.  But if we are honest, we will admit that the childhood dinner table was not always a place of tasty bliss.  There was always that one meal.  Yes, that one.  The one that that as kids we just. couldn’t. stand.  In my case it was my Mother’s potato soup.

My Mom was not the greatest cook in the world, a fact that she has long admitted.  She always joked that the kitchen was the least-used room in her house, and like most jokes it had a touch of truth to it.  Her mother, a farmer’s wife, had been a wonderful cook who could make something delicious from not much, a trait that must have been common from those who were raising kids during the Depression.

Mom remembers that her mother tended to whisk the kids out of the kitchen so that she could get a meal on the table and Mom discovered that her real skill was in the cleanup side of kitchen work.  Right up until age and infirmity dictated that she give up living on her own, no dirty dish ever sullied my mother’s kitchen for long.  But clean pots and pans don’t feed hungry children.  I should also point out that for most of my childhood she was a single mom who worked every day, so there was not always a lot of time for meal prep anyway.  But given all of these limitations, she certainly did her best.

For example, my mother taught me the art of boxes and cans cooking, things that as a kid I lapped right up.  Alright, they were not elaborate things.  Canned Armour beef stew ladled over seashell macaroni is still a favorite of mine.  And don’t even think about substituting Dinty Moore stew for the Armour brand – they are just not the same thing at all, because only one of them tastes like the food Mother used to make.

But every once in awhile it would be – “That Day.”  That Day was always revealed after my younger sister or I asked the question “What’s for dinner tonight.?”  That Day always commenced with the words “Potato soup.”  Which was always followed by our reply:  “Potatooooooo souuuuuup!”  As if stretching out the words (with a pronounced  upward inflection at the end) would result in a “OK, you are right, let’s just get a pizza.”  That never happened.

Today I can go into a restaurant and order potato soup and enjoy it a lot.  But that is because any potato soup I have eaten in a restaurant is nothing at all like my mother’s.  Restaurant potato soup is thick and creamy and often comes with things like cheese and bacon.  Not so the kind we got at home.

It all started with a pot of milk.  I am not much of a milk drinker, and hot milk is not my thing.  Unless there is a lot of chocolate in it with maybe a dollop of whipped cream or a splash of Kahlua, because that is something else altogether.  To the pot of hot milk would be added some butter.  Except that at our house it was Parkay, uh, spread.  Nothing perks up a pot of hot milk like the golden haze of melted globules of corn oil on top.

Next  came the potatoes, diced up nice and small (to cook quickly), and not nearly enough of them.  And finally the onion.  My mother loved onion and any time she could use it she did.  Now I have always had a more complex relationship with onions.  I like them in some things and don’t care for them in others.  When they are cut into pieces bigger than the potato and get all soft and mushy so that the ratio of potato to onion was close to 1:1, it was just a bad situation.

And that was it.  Cook it long enough to keep the potatoes from crunching and shazaam, a pot of soup.  Or a pot of thin hot oiled milk with some potatoes and onions in it.  In fact, I am starting to tense up just thinking about it.

Now the adult me (who has taken a lap or two around the kitchen over the years) knows that Mom indeed had the beginnings of a decent potato soup.  More and bigger pieces of potato, fewer and more finely chopped onions (or scallions, better yet) and thickening.  Lots and lots of thickening.  I suppose the potatoes themselves might have served as the thickener had she let it cook long enough, but there was never time for that.  The stuff in the red and white cans was ready in five minutes, so shouldn’t twenty minutes be good for homemade?

Lest you think I am being difficult here, I am going to out my sister and report that she was right there with me on the potato soup.  The long slow walk to the kitchen would end up with the Ladle of Death pouring the hot, lumpy concoction into our bowls, and then off to the table for our sentence meal.  It was always a long meal.  And crackers didn’t help.  A brighter child than me might have let it cool a bit then chugged the whole bowl down in a single horrifying series of gulps.  But I was not that child.  You know how you linger over a great meal?  I always lingered over the worst ones.  And in case you are wondering, the soup did not get better as it got cold.

I am quite sure that others might try Mom’s potato soup and like it.  Like the friends of ours who invited us for dinner and served – homemade potato soup that bore an uncanny resemblance to that of my youth.  They were quite proud of it.  I was polite and got it down, but told them that I was much too full for seconds.

I suppose we all have our personal potato soups.  My Mrs. couldn’t take a dish that her mother called “hash”.  I never got to experience my mother-in-law’s hash, but I am told that it contained nothing like the corned beef and potatoes that came in the cans which were the source of hash came where I grew up.  This hash was a watery soup of potatoes, celery, celery seed, onion and some leftover beef.  I should also point out that my mother-in-law was a very good cook, so her hash was probably more of a leftovers disposal plan than a real meal.

There was also a nephew who was sent into fits of panic when he heard the announcement that “beans and weenies” would be the bill of fare for the evening.  A can of pork & beans with some hot dogs cut up in them – for my money it sounded a lot better than Mom’s potato soup and I would have traded him in a New York minute.  Kids today!

So what about you?  I am in a mood for comments and figure that pretty much everyone of you has a good story about what constituted the meal from your own childhood which you hated above all others.  So let’s hear it!


25 thoughts on “Childhood Lows: The Dreaded Meal

  1. There were a few, but I shall separate them by meals and cooks…

    Mother’s Breakfast: Rice cereal. She would boil white rice, add a little thickening, and dump the mess into a bowl. It looked like a mound of congealed maggots staring you in the face. There wasn’t enough sugar or cinnamon in the world to overcome the basic nastiness of it. I’m still not a fan of white rice; brown rice is a different matter.

    Mother’s Evening Meal: Liver and onions. The scent in the kitchen was a dead giveaway every time and the liver provided a more metallic taste than if I had tried to eat my fork. It was so bad I once thought I was going to hurl onto my plate. My dad would bull up and threaten what he would do if I didn’t eat it. He didn’t appreciate my response being along the lines of “bring it on”. To this day the thought of liver is repugnant.

    Dad’s Soup: My father, who always seemed to have some sort of allergic reaction to the business end of the kitchen, would get a wild hair on occasion and make “soup”. Sorry, but dumping any and all leftovers from the refrigerator and calling it soup isn’t convincing. When confronted with a bowl of slop that contains pulled pork, macaroni & cheese, canned asparagus, and fried catfish, all swimming in a murky slurry of greasy liquid, my appetite goes out the window.

    Thanks Jim; I’m no longer feeling the need for breakfast!


    • Somehow my mother stopped cooking liver when I was about 10 or so. And boy was I happy. As an adult I can deal with it but don’t love it.

      I think I would dive into a bowl of Mom’s potato soup if your dad’s soup was the alternative!


  2. Three, in order:

    Liver and onions. I need not explain.

    Stuffed green peppers. Mom cut the tops off green peppers, scooped out the stuff inside, and filled them with this hamburger-rice mix. The peppers were always soft and slimy, the rice was never cooked through.

    Pepper steak. I don’t know now why I didn’t like this, but I would rather have pulled out all my fingernails than eat this beef-and-veg-in-brown-sauce thing.


    • I wasn’t much of a fan of green peppers either. My mother made hamburger and rice balls cooked in tomato juice and called them porcupines. Loved ’em. But when she would stuff them in green peppers I hated them.
      I think that pepper steak was a fad, I had an aunt who made it. Not a fan, but then it had peppers in it.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Yeah, put me in the liver and onions camp as well. But your potato soup does sound pretty bad…

    But, one of my Mom’s favorite cooking stories is when she made stuffed peppers when I was about 5. I kept coming into the kitchen, saying how hungry I was and how good it smelled. When we sat down to eat I took one bite and burst into tears. “How can something that smells so good taste so terrible?” I cried.

    We normally got no mercy from Mom, who as a depression and war survivor would not tolerate wasting food. But that one time she relented.

    I like stuffed peppers now, and when I see liver and onions on a restaurant menu I am tempted to try it to see if it’s as bad as I remember. Haven’t done it yet.


    • My wife and one son simply love liver and onions. The funny thing is that while I’m not crazy about either one, there is something about them together that makes them better than you might think. But they are still pretty low on the JPC scale of what do I want for dinner.


  4. I wanted to be a smart-ass and cast some aspersions on your own cooking, but I can’t for the life of me think of any semi-regular meals terrible enough to be permanently burned into my memory. I guess that broccoli and cauliflower, its ever-so-slightly less terrible cousin, were the biggest hallmarks of meals I really didn’t want to eat. Looking back, I’m still shocked that you and mom’s successful strategy to make us kids eat spinach was to dump a bunch of red wine vinegar on top of it. Talk about counterintuitive.


    • The vinegar came from my dad. I was wondering if there was one of these in your past, but then you always had fairly advanced taste buds. I’m not sure your brother or sister were quite as easy to please. 🙂


  5. I was a picky eater growing up, so through much of my infancy, many common meals used to sicken me (my father can expand on how ridiculous my eating habits were at one point). Starting from when I was 8 or 9, I gradually began to get over it; and I now embrace nearly all of the foods I was once weary of; but there remains a single exception: mashed potatoes. I know the rest of the world loves them, but to this day, I just can’t stand them. Something about the texture and the aroma just doesn’t sit well with me. Occasionally I’ll be at a gathering where it would be awkward for me to not eat it, so to save face, I have to get a serving of it and fight to put it down while trying to act like it doesn’t revolt me. Weirdly enough, I will happily eat potatoes in every other form, including potato soup; but I just can’t do mashed potatoes.


  6. I can’t think of any overall bad meals, but we had beets far too often, and my mom makes a side dish that involves green beans and mushroom soup that I don’t want to think about.

    By the way, “Ladle of Death” would be a great name for a metal band.


  7. Soup can either be heavenly or hellish, in my experience — and I’m so sorry YOU experienced the latter through your mom’s poootaaatttttoooo soup. My Most Dreaded Childhood Meal also came in the form of a special soup my mom made only when my dad was out of town. My mom was a big fan of liver, but my dad detested it. So every time he was away on business she would indulge the love that dare not speak its name and purée a couple of cooked livers into an olive-brown-colored, frothy-yet-chunky soup. As a kid I was never allowed to leave the table until I finished my meals, and I think that if you added up all the time I spent sitting in front of that soup it would equal at least one year. Good times, good times …


  8. While I read this story I began to think of a supper my dad would make us 5 kids endure when mom took a 2nd shift job for a yr or two. It was also a soup,or a stew, or child endangerment.Then I read the first comment by Jason Shafer about his dad’s soup. Oh my God. Could these men have known each other? Exact MO to a tee.Step one open refrigerator,Dump the left overs in pot. Don’t forget stoop down and ferret out any of those containers hiding in the back. By the time I read Jason’s name for it “slop” I was laughing so hard I had to take off my reading glasses to wipe my watery eyes .


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  14. Homemade potato soup was something my mother made from a recipe from my dad’s Irish family, which was basically just potatoes, milk, some onion, all boiled together until it was thick. In my Irish genealogy reading this kind of thick mush was a staple of many an Irish cottage for centuries. I could eat it, but after graduating to much tastier and thinner restaurant versions it seems tasteless, although the onion and salt did give it some flavor. My mother always made hash too, which wasn’t bad. She had a grinder to grind up the leftover meat and potatoes and onion. My hated childhood meals were homemade beef stew, although I like and make myself now, and my mother’s homemade beef vegetable soup which she still makes and I still can’t eat. Her beef goulash and spaghetti was made with a can of Campbell’s tomato soup as the sauce which I hated too. These would be lunch meals so I’d eat a sandwich instead. My parents never made us eat anything we didn’t like as long as we hate something, so for the stew meals I would often just have bread dipped in ketchup…..go figure I was a picky eater, still am.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Perhaps Mom’s potato soup would have thickened up had it been allowed to simmer for a couple of hours. The restaurant versions were always luxuriously thick compared to what I got at home. My mother in law made a beef vegetable soup that was quite good. That recipe seems to have died when she did.

      I just had to take a few minutes, and I found it! I found two different magazine ads run by Campbell’s for spaghetti sauce using tomato soup – one from 1950 and another from 1960, though there were surely more. “The best tomato sauce I ever tasted!” exclaims the delighted housewife. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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