The Things my Mother Never Did, or Served Us

Can you imagine growing up without the benefit of having tasted peanut butter?

I was one of those guys who fell in love with the great American spread when I entered the United States Army at age nineteen.

It was one morning at breakfast when I first discovered the delight of the sticky, life-perserving substance.

There in the mess hall, in a huge “number ten can” (as they called it), was this marvelous substance, which became a life support system. Wherever I happened to be in the world, if there was a can or jar of peanut butter, I knew da harv was safe from possible starvation.

But aside from the great ability peanut butter had to provide the sustenance for life needed to make it in a combat area, there was also the trading value on the black market, which for a time was beyond belief. I can remember seeing those number ten cans being used as containers after they were empty. A tin or aluminum can was a valuable tool to a homemaker when there weren’t any “Crate & Barrels” or “Williams-Sonoma” stores in the neighborhood.

Some of the less reputable cooks in the service were making sizeable sums of money trading anything extra they had in their mess halls at the end of the day. As an example, a number ten can of peanut butter often brought in as much as fifty dollars on the black market.

Amongst the United Nation troops, the Americans, The Filipinos, and the Brits were the most familiar with peanut butter as a staple in their weekly diet.

Since peanut butter was originally patented circa 1890-1903, immigrants coming to the United States in that era from the European Eastern Bloc countries had no idea of what it was. Maybe that would explain why as a young kid I had never tasted it. With a dad from Russia, and a mom from Romania, one might understand why my mother never served it.

And then there was the artichoke. My mother not only never served one up, I doubt if she had ever even seen one as she was growing up. Well, this one I can’t blame on my mother being an immigrant. It turns out only four out of every seven people over the age of thirteen has ever eaten an artichoke. All seven know it is green in color, it should be eaten preferably warm or hot, and at a reasonably slow pace. Since it’s not a particularly filling course, it falls into one of the more expensive food sources. Artichokes are preferred more by women than men. Children would much rather have a hotdog or a peanut butter sandwich.

(The preceding information was gathered from my own office staff of seven, and should not be considered as an exact science, unless you’re soft in the head.)

There were many more things my mom refused to include in her culinary repertoire. My mom never gave in to looking at a recipe. If she couldn’t memorize the ingredients, or if the meal required too many ingredients, then you had better forget about it. Measuring cups were not things she believed in. It was always a handful of this or a pinch of that; and I guess that would have to be the main reason she was in the “Guinness World Book Of Records”, holding the title of “The World’s Most Inconsistent Cook” (The Guinness part is a fabrication, in order to make my story more endearing).

The inconsistency drove the family to tears, caused by the laughter from behind-her-back-remarks about her cooking.

On one occasion, the family was celebrating the return from service of a young uncle of mine, from my father’s side of the family. They were the Russians with the heavy duty say-or-do-whatever-you-like sense of humor. On that night, my mother was making my favorite: Spaghetti and meatballs. My uncle Nat, the returnee, was seated near the head of the table next to my dad. Everything was very festive. The place looked and smelled good. About thirty family members gathered around the table as my mother, assisted by three or four of my young cousins, began bringing in the large platters of salads, meatballs and spaghetti, and all kinds of Italian rolls.

Note: I was eight years of age at the time.

Of further note was the fact no one from my mother’s side of the family was in attendance. I can’t ever remember them socializing at any event other than a wedding or a Bah Mitzvah. Oil and water would be a good description.

All was going well as the salad began to disappear. Then I wondered why the room began to get quite as the plates of meatballs and spaghetti were started on. Around the room, the relatives began looking at each other in disbelief. It was then my mother came in from the kitchen to see how everyone was doing. The aunts and uncles tried not to show any radical expressions, up until a couple of them began to giggle. In no time at all it turned into raucous laughter. My mother, displaying one of her ominous getting-ready-to-explode look, shouted out, “Okay, somebody want to tell me what’s so funny?” My uncle Nat, trying to head off the problem, decided on his own form of humor. He picked up a couple of meatballs, one in each hand and proceeded to tell the group: “These things are like rubber balls. I bet they can bounce.” With that, he attempted to bounce one on the dinning room floor. While they were kind of tough, they were still unable to bounce. And then he tossed the other meatball to my dad at the head of the table. My dad reached up and with a display of perfect timing caught the meatball and placed it neatly back on the original serving platter. It was quite a spectacle. Everyone at the table began replacing their uneaten meatballs. My uncle Nat stood up, wine glass in hand, and proposed a toast to my mom. “Here’s to Lill,” he said. “She made the best spaghetti I’ve ever had in my life.” Without exception, all stood and congratulated her. I have no idea what happened to the meatballs. I can’t recall my mother ever serving them to a group again.

Today, let it be known, I still list spaghetti and meatballs at the top of my favorites list, even if the balls are made from turkey. I go for what I call the old-fashioned spaghetti. I don’t like the crazy, disguised girly kind. And meat sauce should look like how meat sauce should look; tomato color is the only acceptable color.

Artichokes have also become a disturbingly appealing form of da harv’s sustenance. In the beginning, I was gripped with a most painful forbearance at the very sight of this green misshapen vegetable form. How or why anyone would order an artichoke was beyond me. The name itself makes me think of a person struggling to breathe.

Then one day, because I wasn’t asked what I felt like eating for dinner, there before me, a very large junior form of palm tree was placed proudly on our dinner table for all to see. Lo and behold, I was the recipient of my very own man-sized artichoke. This gentleman was trapped. I hesitated for a moment as I watched our two guests and my wife dive in with reckless abandon. I immediately discovered that artichoke enthusiasts have a great deal in common. Most eat as if they were raised by a barbarian cult, following the edict of eating as fast as you can because some enemy may take your food away from you.

The other obvious characteristic is their lack of feeling in their fingertips. While I had trouble peeling off the leaves from the main body of the choke (as I affectionately called it) these people, my wife included, without any thoughts of burning palates and no longer having discernable fingerprints, proceed to tear into these butter drenched, malformed, distorted, asymmetrical, and obviously selectively addictive gourmandizing delight of the above-the-crust normalcy, allowable to a privileged few.

And all of what I’ve said, now having been said, I would like to say… I have grown to love my wife’s artichokes. I admit without any real consequence or peril of misunderstanding… hers are the best artichokes known to man (actually, to this man).

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