snot stew and other good things to eat...
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No, my mother was no kind of cook to speak of. But she excelled at story-telling, was kind to small animals, remained optimistic in the most distressing circumstances and developed the patience of several saints. In my mind's eye, she will always have her platinum blonde hair piled atop her head and held in place with a disarray of black bobbie pins, a dark red slash where her mouth should be, bright red talons out to HERE, an old flannel shirt coming untucked from her trousers as she dashes about the house, a kid on one hip, doing dishes, sprinkling clothes to iron, putting scraps down in the dog's dish, separating a couple of squabbling children, hugging one and smacking the other, asking, "OK, who knows where my blouse is? A dime for whoever finds and irons my blouse. Oh, jeehzus cheerist, I'm gonna be late for work!" I don't know how she survived with her sanity, to say nothing of her good will, intact. She loved puns and silly songs and somehow found time to make each of us kids feel we were her favorite and to instill in us a fascination in the world around us.
Mom used to take us down town to the places she worked waitressing and introduce us to her customers and co-workers. She let us sit at a booth or the counter and drink coffee which we made filthy with loads of sugar and white with cream. She was so obviously proud of her "little animals" or "pack of wild Indians" that we would try to sit up straight and say "please, ma'am," and "No, thank you, sir," and not disappoint her in public. When she was off duty, she sat with us and kept us entertained by peeking at the other diners around us.
"What about them?" she asked, nudging us and tilting her head towards a couple sitting together on the other side of the room. "Do you think they are married? Or, is she some little chippie out with her latest fellow? Nah, they must be married. Look, he doesn't even pay attention while she's talking. He's impatient. Maybe they just had a fight. What do you think?"
And, so, we made up stories about the people around us, trying to figure out who they were and what they were doing. A lot of people knew Mom and stopped by our table to chat: a cowpoke, his clothes white from alkali dust, little old ladies with blue hair who already knew all our names, men in business suits, young fellows with cigarettes rolled up in the sleeves of their tee shirts, gorgeous women in elegant dresses, ranch wives with hair sunbleached as pale as the desert. Everyone seemed to have a nice word to say to mom, a little gossip or a wisecrack to exchange, a comment to make to us kids. Pit bosses in baggy suits with glossy hair and blue bags under their eyes came over, speaking sideways out of their tight mouths, "Heard your old man dropped a bundle at the crap's table over at the Stockman's Club the other night, Katie. It's a shame he don't quit winners once in a while. But, oh well, gambling money knows no home, I guess. Well, it's good to see ya. Keep those kids in line."
The jukebox was always playing Hank Williams, Patsy Cline or Tennesse Ernie Ford, all whooping and wailing to the thump, thump, thump of a bass guitar. People often gave us nickels to play a few tunes which would have the gang of us gathered dancing with impatience around the whirling rainbow of the Whirlitzer in the corner, bickering over our choices and whose turn it was to punch in each selection. Cassandra knew all the words to every song; she liked the sad bluesy numbers. I wanted the kick up your heels, who cares, have another drink and everybody dance songs. When I couldn't remember the lyrics, I just made up my own which infuriated my exacting sister.
Best of all, we liked it when the skinny old cook would bustle out of the steaming kitchen and stop to scold and chide and tease our mom. His transposition of L's and R's amused us immensely. "Oh, rookit awah itty bitty Macaloy babies. Rooky jussa rike mahmah. You wanna do-nut, maybe? Ah, yes, arways hunglee, arways eatee up good." The Chink kept a shiny Liberty Head dime in one ear, was as thin as a willow and smelled wonderfully of fried hamburgers. His apron wrapped all the way around him and tied in the front and hung comically long on his slight frame. But, he had big rope-like muscles on his naked forearms and a tattoo of a naked lady he could make sway and hula dance when he flexed. He kept a constant one-sided conversation going, asking and answering a rushing stream of questions, always ending by telling us what a wonderful person mom was. "Good woman, good mahmah, velly velly good worker, arra time. Work hard. Keep evelybody happy." Well, we knew that, for a fact. Mom worked hard at home, at her job, and all she ever wanted was for everybody to be happy---arra time.
I think the worst of Mom's problems was our constant fighting. We bickered endlessly and came to blows several times a day. Mom tried to reason with us and forever pled with us to use our common sense. "Play fair,” she cajoled, "Be NICE, for crying out loud." Her method of dealing with our conflicts was not very effective. Dad on the other hand just grabbed each of us by the scruff of our necks and clunked our heads together, with a firm "Now knock it off!" which at least distracted us from our disagreements for as long as it took for the stars to stop wheeling around our heads.
Mama could prevent us from trying to dismantle each other in one of two ways. One was to appeal to our artistic sense of creativity which she did by supplying us with water color sets and crayolas and sheets of butcher paper when we had it or torn-down paper bags or sheets of newspaper. "Look at this," she implored, "See what happens when ya mix red with yellow, ya get orange. Blue and red make purple, see? Yellow and blue make green. Isn't that neat?" she asked. Of course she had to give us separate paint sets and boxes of Crayons, elsewise we set-to over who gets which first. As it was, we found ways to fight over whose red was the shortest and who belonged to the broken black and who scribbles so hard they blunt the points and who pulled the bristles out of the big brush. Oh, poor Mom, why she didn't drown us all I will never know? But she cheerfully arbitrated our disputes and if she was skillful enough in her peacemaking she might even manage to keep us quietly occupied for half an hour or so.
She showed us how to do watercolor washes as well as how to paint over pictures we had colored carefully to get a wax-resist effect. She praised to the heavens our each grubby effort and scotch-taped our works to the front of the ice box and along the walls in the kitchen and down the hallway so that family and visitors could admire our artistic endeavors. "Oh," she said, "That's very nice. I believe that this is every bit as good as Mr. Pablo Picasso during his Blue Period, don't you?" and we nodded our heads solemnly as she hung it up although we had not a clue who Mr. Picasso might be. Hence we learned the words: abstract, Impressionistic, pointillism, non-objective, recessive color scheme and imagined ourselves as starving artists, in Paris or Italy, with important visions to share with the world
. Mom set us up with our paints and pencils and paper and box of colors on the floor in the kitchen while above us she stood at the ironing board, pressing our dresses and her work clothes while we all listened to the afternoon soap operas on the Yellow G.E. radio. Young Doctor Malone was the one we liked best. "Oh, to have their problems,” Mom sighed.
Another pretty much fail-safe method of instilling a few minutes peace around the old homestead was to make cookies. Ironically, while Mom was hard-pressed to whip up a meal with any finesse or flair, she had a positive genius for making cookies. She had no known recipe; all of her cookies followed the same basic method, using whatever ingredients she might find on hand. She was a pretty smart cookie, herself, as she knew enough to make sure the kids were active participants in the cookie-making process which kept us from each other's throats and gave us something to do besides debating over whose yo-yo just got chewed up by the dog.
Mom's Cookies, For Well-behaved Children Only
Pre-heat the oven to 375 and grease the cookie sheets. If ya don't have cookie sheets, old pie tins will have to do. Grease 'em good. This will keep those little beggars busy long enough for ya to put a stick of margarine in a large mixing bowl and mash it up and get it softened a bit. Cream this together with about a cup of brown sugar and a cup of white sugar or any combination thereof you have available. Kids like this part so let them cream away. Ya cannot damage the dough by beating too much and it's good arm exercise for over-active little ones. Sneak in an egg or two at this point and some vanilla flavoring if ya have it and let them continue wailing away at that batter. When the kids have about run out of steam, sift a couple of cups of flour, a level spoon of baking soda and a half a spoon of salt into the batter. This is where the kids usually lose interest as the batter becomes a little harder to beat. Get the kids to take turns and count each other's strokes. Two sets of twenty or four sets of ten each will usually about do it, anywhere around 150 strokes and the flour should be all stirred in and you'll have a stiff cookie dough and some tired kids. This is your basic sugar cookie dough. Drop by heaping spoonfulls onto the cookie sheets with enough space between each for them to raise while they bake. Each batch will take 8 to 10 minutes. Use a spatula to remove from the cookie sheet and onto newspaper on the table or kitchen counter to cool. Make sure the kids understand that only good kids get to make or eat these cookies and you should be able to get a little peace and quite and a fair amount of cookie kindness for a day or two.
If you want to make chocolate chip cookies, reduce the total amount of sugar by about a half a cup and add a couple cups of chocolate chips. If you want to make peanut butter cookies, cut the fat in half and add a cup or so of peanut butter to the creamed mixture. ("Chunky style is best!" "Uh uh. Smooth is better." "Is not." "Is too." "Snot!" "Stew!" "Snot! Snot! Snot!" "Stew! Stew! Stew!" Oh oh.) Spice cookies can be had by adding walloping doses of cinnamon, mace, nutmeg, and ginger. Gingersnaps require that you add a cup or two of dark molasses to the creamed mixture and plenty of ginger, 3 or 4 heaping spoons full and increase the flour by several cups. You will also have to sneak another level spoon of soda in there and roll the cookies into balls and roll them around in sugar before placing them on the cookie sheet. By experimentation you will find out whether to add more or less molasses and flour to get crispier or chewier gingersnaps. In any case, they should be kept in a jar with a cut apple to keep them softish.
Oatmeal cookies can be made by adding a cup or more of uncooked oatmeal to the batter and enough milk to keep the batter moist rather than crumbly. Raisins are good in oatmeal cookies but make sure you soak them in hot water for a bit first, elsewise they'll just burn on the top of the cookies and look and taste awful. ("Bird's eye." "Is not!" "Is too!" "Snot!" "Stew!" All right, all you kids, it is definitely nap time!) You can sneak lots of good and healthy things into cookies including nuts and fruit of all manner, coconut, dried milk, egg powder, etc, even granola, wheat germ, sprouted grains and other hippie whole foods such as Mom never even heard of back in Elko. So long as the kids get to mess around with the batter and ya call it a cookie, the kids will eat them gladly and brag on ya to their friends. It is a sad fact of life today that hardly anybody's Mommy knows how to or will let the kids help make cookies!!