“Homestyle Potatoes” read the menu.
“What’s ‘homestyle’ mean?” Rachel asks as we sit at a posh little bistro table under a chilly SoCal sky on our first morning in Disneyland.
“Fried. Probably deep-fried.” I reply.
A perplexed look crosses her face. “Fried? Deep? What’s that?”
“The potatoes are fried in a vat of oil, like french fries.” I answer.
“Since when does anyone get that at home?” she mutters. “Sounds like a donut, which we also never get at home.”
I must pause and confess that I have raised my children without donuts or french fries. Period. When once a friend offered Elizabeth (then 5) a donut she politely declined and then stated flatly, “Donuts make your heart explode.” ‘Tis true. I am so heartless as to barricade my home from such things for reasons of health and maybe something more.
As a child I grew up on cold cereal, donuts, burgers, fries, and all the rest. “Home” style in my home meant Betty Crocker or Mamma Celeste or (on really flush days) Stoeffer’s. My mom worked. My grandmother worked. And they didn’t cook. I didn’t know anybody that cooked, save a temporary boyfriend of mom’s who threw a steak on a BBQ to impress us. A sleepover at “Nonie’s” (my grandma was too modern to go by "grandma") included a dinner of Swanson’s frozen macaroni and cheese – and I loved it! A sleepover at a best friend’s house included frozen or takeout pizza. I never SAW anyone cook except for my great grandmas (each affectionately referred to as “Mammy”) in South Dakota. They grew gardens and baked bread and all the rest. BUT, they were pioneer women and poor. They lived in old houses, wore old-fashioned clothes (with aprons), and had old-fashioned lives. They didn’t have all the “choices” my mother and grandmother did, or so my mom and grandma said. My mammys lived as they always had – as they HAD to, not as they CHOSE to. I accepted this as fact and went back to munching on my strawberry frosted/sprinkled pop tart.
As I grew up I developed all kinds of stomach troubles. The doctor’s attributed it to family upheaval, new schools, stress, upset. “It’ll pass,” they assured, “Just make her drink this before each meal.” (Yes, it was ghastly and I chose to avoid eating and became skinnier and skinnier with stomach pains.) By the mid-teens I had an ulcer and my mother had a nervous breakdown. The chalky stuff didn’t seem to help one bit.
Later I took a trip to visit my “Mammy” back in South Dakota. I stayed a mere week or so, but it felt like Heaven. I sat in her kitchen nibbling ginger cookies and sipping tea (both to be avoided per doctor’s instructions). All the while Mammy bustled around in her home-style kitchen, which I noticed lacked “style” and “flair.” It looked nothing like the kitchens gracing the latest magazines on our coffee table at home. Nor did it resemble our all-electric-with-microwave-and-dishwasher kitchen in our latest apartment. I never even saw anything like it on TV, except maybe Ma’s Little House kitchen – which was not really a kitchen at all, was it?
“Why haven’t you updated your kitchen, Mammy? It’s really old?” I queried.
[Laughing, her wheezy, eye-squinting laugh] “I have an updated kitchen. See this faucet? And over there is the bathroom. Child, when we moved in here I had no indoor plumbing. I’m just fine with how this is. It suits me well”
She went back to the sudsy water in a tub placed in the sink and I continued mentally redecorating the hodge-podge kitchen.
That week I spent with Mammy found me at table five times a day (Breakfast-Dinner-Teatime-Supper-Midnight Snack . . . at midnight!). I ate all manner of soups, stews, breads, cheeses, cakes, etc. made right there in that old-fashioned kitchen, and I never drank a bit of that icky white stuff. Surprise! My stomach eagerly accepted every morsel without a single prick of pain. I even gained a bit of weight which made my Mammy smile with that crinkly-eyed grin. In her home-style kitchen Mammy churned out wondrous smells and fabulous tastes like rhubarb dumplings -- which I balked at trying (rhubarb? Ewwwww!) -- but which sent me over the moon when I relented and tasted. Too bad she never wrote down the recipe, for my youthful memory failed to log it all in despite the fact that I watched her every move as she stirred and tasted and added and stirred some more. Home-style cooking in that Home-style kitchen suited me well.
Time passed. I left. The pains returned. The doctor’s called it stress. I drank the white goo. I lost weight.
More time passed. I went to Norway for a summer and lived a life without pain as we dined on fresh foods around a family table. I gained 25 pounds along with a new perspective. The pains were not to return . . . I was determined.
I returned to the US with a new diet plan and despite snickers and chiding from peers and parents, I avoided the typical diet. Donuts and fries lost out to weedy salads (really hard to find more than iceberg back then) and stinky cheeses for a while, but I couldn’t afford to eat well on a school-girl’s salary. So I succumbed and . . . well, you can predict . . . the weight left and the pains returned. My current style of eating was killing me. I knew had to change.
Looking back, going “natural” couldn’t have been more UNnatural. I read. I studied. I experimented. I failed miserably. (Just ask Gary about the potatoes-and-kale flop, or better yet, the brussels-sprout-potato potage -- from a monastery cookbook -- that looked like dishwater and tasted worse.) I sought out the tiniest markets that offered the most natural ingredients. I had to find my way back to home-style cooking, and the road led away from the golden arches and the SUPER markets down an overgrown and seemingly forgotten path.
When my boys were born in a dire state I found even greater impetus to go all natural. I forged ahead and foraged for deeper knowledge of food and health. I found it. I made it my own. And so my children have grown up with an old-fashioned “home”-style because of my choice.
The last time I saw my Mammy I sat in her kitchen and nibbled ginger cookies over a cup of tea (Lipton’s, always Lipton’s flo-thru tea bags) as she bustled around in her home-style kitchen. I smiled and remarked that I loved this kitchen so much, I wouldn’t change a thing! She winked and smiled with the crinkle. Home-style had been here with her all the time by her choosing. (My mom was wrong.)
Home-style means different things to different people and the food industry has exploited it to include french fries and donuts that no home could (or would) produce. But as I watch my daughters leaf through my cookbooks and hastily-scrawled recipes, or watch over my shoulder as I season my chili with Worcestershire sauce (my secret ingredient from a small producer who uses no high fructose corn syrup), or triumphantly grace the table with a new creation all their own, I rejoice in our Home-style. Surely my mammy looks down from Heaven with a knowing smile that crinkles with joy as she sees us choosing a home-style just as she did.