I sometimes wonder how I ended up in a professional kitchen. So many chefs and cooks trace their love of food back to their grandparents' vegetable gardens or their aunt's spectacular apple kuchen, or their mother's elaborate and tasty Sunday night dinners complete with homemade scratch biscuits.
My mother's domain was the can. She was - and still is - an Olympic-caliber opener of cans. She did it with dedication and commitment, but also with a certain youthful panache, which I attribute to her swingy Vidal Sassoon hairdo. She also excelled at reading the directions on packages and boiling cryovac'd bags. She and Stouffer's were the closest of friends.
But that's not to say my mother never cooked. Every now and then, she would turn on the stove, which was an exciting and unpredictable event because there was always the threat of breaking a nail, which would then require an emergency follow-up trip to the manicurist.
Her signature dish was Creamed Tuna Fish on Toast. It was my favorite thing in the whole world (for a very brief period in 1972) and it involved a can of tuna, a can of peas, and a white sauce made with Wondra flour, milk and no seasoning whatsoever. If the Bland and Mushy Food Gods were in especially good spirits that day, mashed potatoes would replace the toast. Not to brag or anything but she used real potatoes.
My mother had a second signature dish, this one more boldly avant garde than the first. The open-faced construction demonstrated her skill with color and architectural proportion. She started with a slice of white bread. On top of that was a slice of American cheese, then a raw hot dog, sliced lengthwise and placed face down on the cheese-topped bread. Then, in a style that can only be described as I-don't-belong-in-the-kitchen post-modern, she scattered pieces of green pepper and tomato on top of the dog. Add another slice of American cheese, torn into irregular strips and strewn haphazardly across the top, a quick trip to the broiler, and you've got a simultaneously hot and cold, cooked and uncooked, burnt and barely melted open-faced sandwich. You also have some pretty potent indigestion.
My mother was also pretty good at driving us to White Castle. But I'll save that for another post.