Monday, February 8, 2010

Two Special Birthday Dinners

January 24, 2010 was an evening that required an especially nice dinner. Katherine, my partner of twenty years, was born on January 25, 1955 and was turning 55 this year. We had invited her cousin and his wife, our dear friends Trip and Rivka, to join us for dinner.

I wanted to fix something special that would warm us up from head to toe. I chose the following: spare ribs in a delicious wine-ladened sauce cooked in the oven for hours in one of my favorite Bram pots. Wasabi mashed potatoes which are so good it is hard not to poke your finger into the serving bowl for one more bite. Caramelized carrot salad which I made ahead and served at room temperature. A salad course of beautiful greens enriched with slices of avocado and my Papaya Seed Dressing. Home-made Apple Crisp for dessert, although a Persimmon Pudding or a Lemon Mousse would do just as nicely. We drank a gorgeous 2007 Bourgueil Avis de Vin Fort from Catherine et Pierre Breton. You can find the recipes for three of these dishes below.

The dinner party was a big success, Katherine loved the food and felt properly celebrated. As we were walking a few days later and talking more about the party, I remembered a special birthday dinner that my mom fixed for me sometime in the 1950s, perhaps in 1955 (I would have been 12), and was struck by how similar it was to the one I had prepared for Katherine. Is there a place in our brains where we store “Special Birthday Dinners”?

Here is what my mom cooked at my request: a pot roast simmered in a large oval enamel pan in the oven with peeled potatoes and carrots. The potatoes were browned and the outside developed a skin which would ever-so-slightly resist my teeth’s efforts to get to the creamy inside. The carrots were so orange, soft and delicious, it was hard to believe that they were the same vegetable she tucked in my school lunches. When the meat had cooked until it was falling apart into succulent shreds, she would remove everything but the juices from the pan. She’d mix up a combination of water and flour in a small metal container with a lid which she would shake up and down vigorously until the mixture was well-blended. She stirred the flour mixture into the juices and simmered them until they thickened into gravy. There may have been a salad, most likely iceberg lettuce, carrots, celery perhaps, and Italian bottled dressing. I don’t remember the dessert but it could have been a boxed yellow cake with chocolate frosting. I loved this dinner, especially the meat, potatoes, and gravy. Look in a 1950s edition of Better Homes and Gardens New Cook Book for a close approximation. It was a real birthday treat.

She was cooking her dinner for me in Toledo, Ohio in the 50s and was influenced by middle class habits and customs of that time and by availability of ingredients. It was expected that she would cook; it was her responsibility. Within that context, she made cooking decisions based on her resources, the time she had to spend in the kitchen, and her desire to please her family. Let me give you a couple of examples:
1. My family never cooked with wine; she would have added water, not wine or stock, to her pot roast.  Nor did they drink wine on a regular basis. Hard liquor before and coffee with dinner. That was their custom. Wine was an extravagance.
2. When it came to salad greens, she had one choice. Iceberg lettuce.
3. Bottled salad dressings seemed to us to be a great improvement over everyone having to eat the same one.  They also saved time in a period when efficiency was highly valued.
4. Box cakes were fashionable in the 50s and stayed that way well into the time I was learning to cook. Because dessert was pretty much a nightly requirement, boxed cakes, instant puddings, and the like were seen as very helpful.

That I prefer wine to coffee with dinner, love the variety of the greens, make my own salad dressings and most of our desserts is the result of my living in the Bay area in this particular moment where great ingredients are readily available and the desire to eat healthy food is shared with a large swath of the community. I choose to spend time in the kitchen because I love to cook. Unlike my mom, efficiency doesn't matter all that much to me and thankfully, desserts are not an everyday necessity.

Finally, I imagine my mom and me standing side by side in a kitchen, straddling the span of time that separates us, each fixing birthday dinners. We share so many of the same values. We are both willing to spend time and effort in the kitchen. We both want the food to look beautiful on the plate. We both want the food to be cooked with an abundance of love. And most of all, we both want the dinner to be delicious and special for our birthday girls. Thanks, Mom.


Tinky said...

BOTH birthday dinners sound pretty great to me (okay, I do put wine in my pot roast, make my own salad dressing, and avoid cake mixes, but...). Thanks for sharing both recent and long-ago memories.

Anonymous said...

I loved this story Mom. It was great to hear about both dinners.
So I'm staring to think you might be sponsored by the Bram pots people you like them so much.

Jean said...

what a FANTASTIC picture of KAthryn...and my mouth is watering!! Off to the grocery stoere ASAP!! love...jean

Amy C said...

I made the ribs and carrots for guests the other night. See my comment under the recipe section. They were great!