Recipes From My Mother

by Lynne Schmelter-Davis

Don’t you love the cookbooks that are as much autobiographical as culinary? The family cookbooks that describe relationships as well as recipes? Where food is simmered with love and served with caring? My family cookbook is more likely to be a pamphlet than a book. But I would like to share my childhood memories of home cooking back in the day when fast food meant your brother gobbling everything in sight and reservations were something you had about a person you didn’t like.

My mother was known as the “Turkey Lady.” This came about because she was agoraphobic and refused to leave the house for a holiday dinner. So everyone came to our house. I learned from my mother how to make a turkey with all the trimmings. For twenty people, it was necessary to buy the biggest, most monstrous piece of poultry that could be found in the supermarket freezer. The directions said to defrost the bird in cold water so our twenty-five-pound gobbler was placed in the bathtub for two days to thaw out which meant no baths or showers for us. Next, the thing was placed upside down in a huge roasting pan, sprinkled with paprika and salt, and placed in an oven. At this point, one had to be cautious. First, one had to turn on the oven. We forgot this once and after six or so hours, when the oven door was opened, there sat a pale, sprinkled, cold mass. We had cheese sandwiches for supper.

Okay…say that the oven is nicely hot. Hopefully, someone has removed that bag of giblet stuff that is packed in there because, if not, it will sort of cook with the turkey but the cooked paper is useless and the innards in the paper are worse. Now, remember, the turkey must be upside down in the pan so the breast meat will not dry out. After a few hours, the bird must be turned. I well recall the day that my father grabbed the legs, flipped the turkey in mid-air, and it jumped out of his hands and skidded across the floor. He was left holding the leg bones, one in each hand. The dog ran over to the turkey but my father was faster and he hoisted that hot bird with his bare hands and threw it back in the roaster. My mother cried. Somehow the turkey cooked the rest of the way and we ate it without legs.

While the turkey cooked it was time to make the trimmings. We always had the same sweet potato side dish. This was made by mixing a big can of Bruce’s Sweet Potatoes with a small can of Dole Crushed Pineapple (drained) and then placing the mixture by spoonfuls into paper cupcake holders in a muffin tin. On top were cut up Kraft marshmallows, (this was pre-mini-marshmallow days). The cups went into the oven to bake. At the last minute, before serving, the muffin tin went under the broiler to brown those marshmallow pieces. One time we saw flames when we opened the oven door—the marshmallows had caught fire. My mother blew and blew on the flames, causing her teeth to fly out of her mouth onto the marshmallows. I was shocked because I thought she had blown her real teeth out. I cried. So did my mother. My father grabbed the hot, sticky teeth and ran out of the kitchen, my mother following. Later they scraped off the black marshmallows and we ate the sweet potatoes. The last side dish was, of course, cranberry sauce. I liked to watch the cranberry sauce trick. My mother would open the can of Ocean Spray Cranberry Sauce on both ends and then push one end through causing a solid cylinder of sauce to fall onto the plate. There it sat, beautiful and dark red and kind of moving in a sensuous way.

My mother made one other main dish that I remember watching her do. It was my father’s favorite. He called it “feesnuggit” and she called it “petchah”. I’m sure other ethnic groups have other names for this delicacy. It is calves’ foot jelly. You have to first get a foot of a calf. You put the foot in a pot with some greens and lots and lots of garlic. You cook it for a long time until the house smells really awful. Then the foot is removed and the meat is chopped up. The meat is very sticky and hard and almost impossible to chop. Then you do some other stuff and strain it all into a pot with whole hard-boiled eggs (no kidding) and place the pot in the refrigerator. The thing will jell and look exactly like grayish-green cloudy Jell-O with a very garlicky smell. This is cut into squares and vinegar is poured over the top before serving. I never tasted this dish so I can’t comment on whether it was worth all that work. I also never came across it anywhere else so maybe she made up the whole thing.

I hope that my children will have different memories of Mom’s cooking, but I wonder.

Lynne Schmelter-Davis: I have kept a journal through my life. My mini-memoir is taken from that and every word is true. Every life is interesting but I think mine may have been funnier than most.