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Yesterday & Today

A seasoned senior reflects on culinary tradition

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The mantle of preparing delicious, beautiful, full-throated food was passed to me like the laying on of hands. I have been learning to cook the same way—in the same house—for 52 years. When I moved from Richmond to Longfellow Street in 1966, Julia Child was just gathering steam. She became my Second Best Instructor, but the First Best was my mother (with my two grandmothers playing second string). I grew up with wonderful food, remarkable in the details, simple but always perfect.

Eating is right up there with breathing, in my book. When I was a little girl, the breakfast table looked like a dinner party—but without the candles. The table was set with daytime water goblets, butter plates, silver salt cellars and pepper shakers. We had luscious breakfasts, consisting of things like kidney stew on toast points or calf brains and scrambled eggs or frog legs or tiny butterfish, sautéed, with batterbread. (We never called it spoonbread.) And this is going to be hard to believe but ... I didn’t like bacon. (I did eventually come to my senses, however, and have since made up for lost time.) I was never made to eat anything that I didn’t like.

My mother, as smart and independent as she was, lived the life of a woman in the 1940s and 50s, focusing on the man of the house. However, when breakfast was over, she got up, put on her hat, and went to work in the law office of McGuire, Eggleston, Bocock & Woods, where she was a legal secretary. Every day, before she left the breakfast table, she would say, “Godwin, what would you like for supper?” And he would answer, every day, “Goddammit, Marie, we just had breakfast.” You could set your watch by those two sentences. In the afternoon, when Mother would come home, still wearing her hat, she would go right to the kitchen to put the last touches on our supper for the three of us. Mary, our cook, had been working all afternoon on whatever we were having, but she never took it over the finish line.

Now, to my father, who grew up at his mother’s table, a literal groaning board of delicious choices, fine food that took hours to prepare. His mother set a standard by which my mother lived: She and my mother were inventive, frugal, thorough and hospitable. Sharing good food and setting a fine table is a learned art, and they both could have taught classes! (Luckily, my mother was an eager pupil and a quick study.) The kitchen in my grandmother Jones’ house was full of “extras”: various pickles and crocks of dark liquid with things that bobbed up and down, savories, left over buttered breakfast toast and cold bacon, jars of succotash, and a seasonal ham leg—complete with bristles—soaking in that odd-shaped pot in the corner. And she always had homemade mayonnaise. There was always something cooking.

During and after World War II, there never seemed to be shortages in our kitchen. We still had butter. And meat. But we didn’t have freezers; the iceman used enormous tongs to deliver massive ice blocks for our icebox. (I still have the ice pick.) As I write this compressed version of what has influenced me, I wander through my years of watching and listening. I am painting a picture of life before Saran Wrap, frozen food—before there was anything resembling a take-out box. There were barely any restaurants in Richmond until the ’50s. The bread that was in the grocery store was white and puffy. Only seasonal vegetables were available. Canning and pickling were necessary if you wanted butter beans, corn or tomato in the winter. Fannie Farmer’s Boston Cookbook was the good cook’s handbook. It first appeared in 1896. Most all of the techniques are still the same. A roux is a roux. I have a 1930s edition, with some pages completely stained from use. The introduction speaks of the ancient history of cookery and millennia of accumulated knowledge. “But for life, the universe is nothing,” Farmer wrote, “and all that has life requires nourishment.” We all eat to live and, luckily, some of us live to eat.

In all my childhood, I remember only one flawed gelatin-based dessert. The jelly was left too long before stirring it into the whipped cream. I remember because I was 8 years old. Now I am 78 and virtually unemployable. I am asked constantly what I’m doing with myself (the rest of the sentence is, “Now that your husband is dead”). The real answer is nothing—or cooking just for fun ... and I’m glad to be doing it, thank you. I watch lots of inspirational YouTube vids on exotic cooking methods, and occasionally I’ll try them out.

What I do have is the time to gather my ruminations and think good thoughts about what I will leave behind for my children and grandchildren. They top the list of my accomplishments: All are artistic, have strong vocabularies, and are scratch cooks. They make their own French dressing, love “new” food. They can even make vegan/gluten-free food that you want to eat. They are better cooks than I, when it comes down to it. They love vegetables, hollandaise, tofu and miso, know more about exotic spices than I ever will (and they use Duke’s mayonnaise). They understand what it means to make a reduction. They search for the quintessential ingredients and share with me. I continue to learn from them all! Some have flower and vegetable gardens. They recycle and never use pesticides. Now I can die happy, having passed on a grand sense of quality and the need for it in one’s life.

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Woolverton is a retired Jacksonville boutique owner.

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