Wednesday, March 21, 2012

"Mad Men" - Food for Thought

Like many fans, I'm happy for the return of "Mad Men" to television.  Aside from my novel, "Ednor Scardens" which was set in that time period, there's a lot of nostalgia for the 1960's now.  An article in today's Baltimore Sun newspaper featured recipes for iconic dishes from that era to tie into the resumption of the show.  As I gazed at the pictures of Steak Diane from Harvey's restaurant, Hot Spinach Salad from the Chesapeake and Strawberry Pie from Haussner's, my mind drifted back to the memory of Paul, the street Arab who trudged the alleys behind my neighborhood.  We heard Paul long before we actually saw him through the back door, as he loudly sang the list of his offerings.  Soon the clopping hooves of his horse who faithfully pulled his wagon added a rhythmic percussion to his tune.

My mom quickly dispatched me with a list to halt his progress while she reached for the can that held her grocery money.  The wagon's metal scale, suspended from a chain, swung crazily as Paul deftly weighed her selections and I poked the row of live soft crabs, trying to make more bubbles come out of their mouths.

Her purchases were modest, as refrigerators were small back then, with freezers the size of shoe boxes.  Cartons of eggs competed for space with damp laundry stored in a plastic bag to keep it from molding before mom had a chance to iron late at night. 

Lots of things have changed in the way we prepare our foods now:  less fats and starches, more fruits and vegetables.  But some have stayed the same.  I still shake my chicken pieces in a paper bag with flour, salt and pepper before frying...on the few occasions that I prepare fried chicken.  I still have to have made-from-scatch mashed potatoes in order to eat liver and onions.  And I never, ever fix a steak on the grill without thinking of my father.

Why would a steak conjure up his memory?  At least twice during the summer months, we'd travel to Mr. Waskey's meat stall at Lexington market where Dad would gesture with his thumb and index finger to indicate how thick he wanted the sirloin slab before hurrying home to grill it.  One afternoon it began to rain soon after he had lovingly seasoned the meat.  Unwilling to change plans, he struggled to move the grill down the outside steps to the basement.  I watched as he stubbornly cooked the meat, ignoring the smoke that wafted steadily up the stairs.  The dog began to bark and mom coughed violently upstairs before she realized what he was doing.  We couldn't throw open the windows wide or else the rain would soak the wooden sills and floors.  He ate his steak sheepishly as we sat at the table, eyes watering from smoke.

Mom was a very good baker, but she wasn't a great cook.  Perhaps because of the lack of dependable refrigeration from the family "ice box" when she was growing up, she cooked a rump roast until it looked like a vampire exposed to sunlight.  She made cream chipped beef on toast that left no doubt in my mind where the WWII slang term "sh__ on a shingle" came from.   But her cakes and pies were remarkable.  To this day I cannot bear to buy a prepared pie crust.  It's like buying a box of cake mix and then saying you baked a cake.  If I'm going to go to the trouble of making something, it has to be from scratch.  I think, unconsciously, I do these ritualistic things to honor my parents in some small way.

I'll be watching the March 25th beginning of Season 5 of Mad Men, and I'll lift my flaky pie crust-filled fork in salute to my glory days.

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