Mom was twirling in the kitchen again. She stretched toward the blue painted refrigerator, which she opened with a flourish and pulled out a chunk of farm-fresh butter. The Vivaldi blared on the stereo in the next room, where the burnt-orange shag carpeting provided little sound barrier, neither did the matching burlap-like drapes.
She tip-toed over to the counter in time to the music, mimicking my ballet moves and sending my Aunt Mart into hysterical laughter. Mom was all hips and thighs, yet she flitted like a graceful, overgrown butterfly, with a silly grin on her face. Bowls of blackberries lined up on the counter, along with deep dish pie plates. The smell of flour, freshly picked blackberries, and
the earth just washed from them, filled the air. The swirled green counter and the deep purple berries looked like a painting, with colors so rich and perfect, the picture so quaint and cozy, which stands out like a Polaroid photo in my memory because that is not how I would describe our home most of the time. But weekends were different. Mom cooked and baked like she used to —before the divorce.
When she stepped into her kitchen, especially on the weekend, she slipped into another personae, her cares drifting away. She was in the moment, not worrying about her boss at the hotel,
the flat tire on her jalopy of a car, or the finding the money to pay the electric bill.
Okay, so sometimes we ate too much canned or boxed food, but Mom loved to cook and bake, and didn’t skimp on ingredients or helpings. She always used real butter, real potatoes, and baked cake, pudding, and made pie from scratch. Mom grew-up in the 1950s, with a “hope chest” full
of real baby clothes and cookbooks. Her goal was a husband, babies, and a house to tend.
For a while, my mom achieved her goal. She became such a good cook that even after my parent’s divorce, my father swallowed his pride and asked her to cook certain dishes for special occasions. One of those dishes was stuffed cabbage, known in the Pittsburgh area as “pigs in a blanket,” or “galumkas.”
Later, mom devised a way of getting the same earthy, slightly sweet, flavor of stuffed cabbage, without rolling the ground beef and rice in cabbage leaves, which was the time-consuming part of preparing the dish. Now that she was a working, single mom, she tried to maintain food standards while allowing herself some sanity.
Instead of rolling the cabbage in perfect tubular shapes, she mixed all of the ingredients together, casserole-style, and baked them. It tasted the same as the other more labored method. In fact, I even think it’s more fun —and certainly easier—to eat than regular stuffed cabbage. Knowing all the hard work that goes into rolling them, I always felt a little guilty about the mess I made trying to eat them.
It didn’t matter to me that the cabbage was stuffed or not. What mattered to me as a child was flavor, and later, knowing it was wrought by my mother’s weary hands. I hang on to this thought as I make my own way as a parent—allowing me to let go of my own ideas of perfection.
In my mind’s eye, I often return to my mother’s kitchen on Fish Pot Road. I am sitting at her old maple drop-leaf table or standing at the kitchen window looking over our backyard. I can almost feel a cool Pennsylvania breeze, see the curtains billowing, and smell pumpkin pie spiced with cinnamon and nutmeg I see her, round and sturdy, twirling around the kitchen in a frilly apron, moving from pot to oven, to refrigerator, sipping a Fresca, laughing at life.
Yet, my memories may not be accurate. My mind sifts through the lessthan good images, the hard times and the struggle, and holds the essence of the truth in wonderful ways. For example, recently I had a conversation with my mother about her aprons.
“I never wore an apron,” she said. “What you are remembering is my robe. I usually cooked and baked in my robe.”
Mom’s Quick and Easy Stuff-less Cabbage
1 large cabbage, shredded
1 12 ounce can of sauerkraut
2 pounds lean ground beef/pork/veal
1/2 pound of bacon
1/2 cup cooked long grain rice
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 package Lipton’s onion soup
2 8-ounce cans chopped tomatoes
1 teaspoon parsley (or to taste)
1 teaspoon oregano (optional)
Salt and pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 350 F
Cut the cabbage in half. Core and shred it. Set it aside. In one bowl, mix together the meat with the rice, spices, dry soup, and onion. In another bowl, mix together the squeezed tomatoes and the tomato soup. Place a layer of cabbage on the bottom of your roasting pan. Pour half the sauce over the cabbage. Take scoops of the meat and place them across the sauce and cabbage. Repeat the layer of cabbage and sauce. Place the pan uncovered in the oven for 45 minutes. Remove from oven and lower the temperature to 250 F. Cover the pan tightly and bake until finished, up to two hours.
A note to vegetarians: I’ve made this dish with fake ground beef and it works fine. I use Morningstar Farms Crumbles.