“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!