Some foodies are born and some foodies are made; the classic case of Nature vs. Nurture. Chef Lady (who has requested that I stop referring to her as Chef Lady, so will now be known as simply KJG) was raised in a family of foodies. Her mother is a fabulous cook, and I believe that KJG grew into her sophisticated palate at a very early age. Their family dinners were, and still are, culinary events, always made special by beautiful table settings, candlelight, music and wine. Platters of food are thoughtfully garnished with fresh flowers or freshly chopped herbs. The perfect amount of food is prepared… everyone is satiated, but not stuffed. Left-overs are a rarity.
My culinary journey differs just a tad…
My mom, the original Mrs. Malaprop, earned the nickname of “Lola” from one of my high school friends, and so Lola she shall be hereafter. Lola grew up in the Depression. As a result, our pantry, fridge and freezer were always stocked to overflowing with every canned good and frozen vegetable known to mankind. Lola loved to cook, and there were home-cooked meals every night… just of a different ilk than KJG’s. Fresh herbs were unheard of in our house… McCormick’s garlic salt and onion powder ruled our flavor profiles, and dried oregano surfaced periodically for fancy Italian dinners. Because we were Catholic, our dear friend Mrs. Paul visited us every Lenten Friday night with her fish sticks and she was invariably accompanied by Kraft macaroni and cheese. Other standard dinners included: polish sausage with noodles and sour cream, pot roast, corn flake-crusted baked chicken and spaghetti. (What’s that exotic flavor in there? Oh yes, dried OREGANO!) Baked goods were omnipresent; cookies (from a hideous, bright green frog cookie jar), breads, cakes… and I am here to tell you, there was no escaping Jello ™ in all its many incarnations.
Because of her childhood in the Depression, Lola was loath to waste any food, ever. Left-overs were religiously enshrined in the absolute perfectly-sized Tupperware container (and because she always cooked enough for an army at every meal, left-overs were also preordained.)
Needless to say, there was a colossal paradigm shift the first time I brought KJG to visit Lola.
Upon arriving at Lola’s house, before you could even take off your coat, the inevitable question: “Are you girls hungry?” Regardless of the answer, the parade of Tupperware containers began… orange Jello salad with shredded carrots, scalloped potatoes (courtesy of Betty Crocker), meatloaf, zucchini bread, and sometimes unidentifiable dishes which would always be referred to as a “new recipe.”
There were also always seriously stale Triscuits with some kind of orangey-red cheese ball and vanilla ice cream (lurking under stalagmites of ice crystals) that looked to have been first opened about a year prior.
On the first visit to Lola’s house, KJG was uber-polite, gamely polishing off every new challenge Lola placed in front of her. For my part, I was just relieved to have some help with the task. On the way home, KJG complained of a stomach ache, and loudly moaned, “What did we just EAT??? What WAS all that stuff??” I told her she had made an old lady happy and I was proud of her for trying new things. “Those weren’t NEW things,” she replied.
Before the next visit, KJG made it clear to me that she was NOT going to be forced to partake of the Tupperware parade, nor was she going to eat Jello in any form, or anything that was stale or had been in the freezer open for a year or more. “Maybe we should go out to eat,” I suggested.
No such luck. Knowing now about KJG’s high standards, Lola had upped her game. A freshly opened box of Triscuits awaited us, along with a warm, cheesy casserole coming out of the oven, which my mother announced as “Baked Brie.” Tasting it, KJG and I exchanged glances… it was pretty good, but tasted nothing like brie. “Mom, what’s in this ‘Baked Brie?’” I asked. “Swiss Cheese and Mayonnaise,” she replied. “It’s a new recipe.”
Over the years, KJG and Lola would develop a fabulous relationship that made me happy to my core. Lola would offer ice cream or baked goods, and KJG’s eyes would narrow suspiciously as she asked, “How old is it? Let me smell it first.” KJG’s level of cooking was something my mother had never experienced, but she knew a good thing when she tasted it. Lola would ask KJG food and cooking questions… “What’s a shallot?” “If I don’t cook fish in a microwave, how else can I do it?” Lola learned from KJG how to use actual garlic instead of garlic salt. (Although I once caught her trying to open a can of coffee with a garlic press.) In return, Lola filled our bellies with the best Chex Party Mix in the world.
Lola has been gone several years now. KJG and I talk often of how much we miss her, especially as the holiday season approaches. I am quite certain that she is up in heaven with Jackson, feeding him stale cookies and crackers, and ice cream with freezer burn, which he is happily gobbling down.
And they are both looking down on us and saying, “I told those girls there was nothing wrong with this stuff.”