Roots and Wings

Sitting in an overstuffed chair in a hotel room in Boston in 1995, I looked out the window at one of America’s oldest cities. With breakfast in front of me on the polished walnut table—a dense granola loaded with fresh berries thickly thrown in, along with a huge bran muffin, lathered with butter, and I smiled. Mom would approve. No fake butter for her, ever. (Photo by Liz West.)

I was years and miles away from our little mobile home on Fish Pot Road, yet with a lick of the butter dripping from my muffin I was transported. I saw the hills and valleys outside of our kitchen window, and the tiered curtains billowing in the cool Pennsylvania breeze. One moment I’m thinking of mom’s oven—opening like some forgotten gift and displaying poppy seed cake or pumpkin pie—the next minute the scent from long ago and faraway fades. But somehow the food of home is easily recalled, asif it’s seeped into my blood and pores and into my core.

I looked around at my luxury-filled room—overly plush, deep blue linens, art framed in gilded golden carvings—even stylish phones and clocks glistened. “This is no Howard Johnson’s Ma,” I
suddenly said out loud to the air, or maybe to the ever-present form that is my mother living in my head, the voice that warns me, comforts me, chides me. Howard Johnson’s was the place my mother worked for 15 years, scrubbing floors and toilets for the other half—the half that had the money to travel.

I celebrate in my writing and my life the cooks in the restaurant kitchens, the grandmother keeping her family tradition of handcrafted Polish sausage alive, the struggling organic farmer with dirt beneath his nails, the Cistercian nun making cheese in a secluded monastery. Sometimes it’s pretty, sometimes its not. Sometimes it only takes a moment of readjusting my eyes to see the beauty in the simple line of a calloused finger as it glides along hand crafted cheese or in the way a burly,
apron-donning man gracefully stirs huge vats of sausage gravy. My mother, the hotel maid, danced and sang in her kitchen, and created majestic pies, lasagna and haluski, even as hotel travelers did even see her as she quietly moved in and out of their rooms.

So back to Boston, my elegant hotel room, and thinking about the maids. I have no idea if their lives are as hard as ours were. Or as happy. I looked out of the window, offered a prayer of thanks to the universe, along with a prayer of hope, and left the maid a tip on the shiny walnut table.

Now, as I think back to that day in Boston, I see that my life is completely different than what I thought it was, even then—that my small success is a process of growing both backwards and forwards and sometimes in completely non-linear, unexpected ways. I remain firmly rooted in Pennsylvania in a little mobile home on Fish Pot Road, but it is here in Shenandoah Valley of Virginia that I make my home between the blue mountains and red earth, and yes, in my own kitchen, with my own food, my own words, with the kitchen queen always in the back of my mind.

Do we always have our mothers’ ways and words in our hearts and minds?

(Stay tuned next week for my mom’s poppy seed cake recipe!)

Haluski Marriage

I used to know it would be a good night when my husband came home and said, ”Honey, I smell your haluski and it smells SO good.” Just what every woman wants to hear after a long day at the office. But since we’ve had children—only one of whom will eat the Polish cabbage and noodle dish—carefully picking out the chunks of cabbage—I can only yearn for the days of eating supper and “letting the dishes go. ” (Photo by Jennifer Causey http://www.jennifercausey.com.)

I have often secretly wondered if my husband fell in love with me a little because of my haluski. Oh, I know there’s more to me than that. But I‘ll always remember the spark I saw when he first took a bite of it when were we dating—back in the days that I had the luxury of frying the cabbage in a cast iron skillet in real butter. Now, since we are frantic middle-aged parents, we can barely fit in steaming our cabbage and boiling our whole-wheat noodles between homework, soccer games, and carpool to ballet lessons.

I grew up eating haluski—another one of the Western Pennsylvania mainstays of my youth. It’s just cabbage and noodles, with butter. You can fry the cabbage, as my mother insists is the best way. (See
the Kitchen Queen rules.)
You can also boil it, or steam it, which is how I make it. It gives the cabbage a subtler flavor, and your arteries might thank you for it later. My mother thinks its impolite to talk about arteries and food in the same conversation, and when the topic of frying anything in butter comes up, she likes to say, “All things in moderation,” meaning “Go ahead and fry the cabbage in real butter, hon, it won’t hurt you.”


I love the way my husband loves my haluski. By the time I met Eric, I had my fill of dating men who wanted to impress me with their knowledge of French food, wine, or truffles—not that there’s any thing wrong with that perfectly fine food, but it’s hardly the kind of food from which to form a relationship.

Haluski is exactly the kind of food on which good relationships can be based. If you fall on hard times, it’s a dish you can rely on— it’s cheap and fairly nutritious. When family life gets harried, and it’s difficult to find the time to have a meal together—there’s always quickly put-together haluski. When you need a good dish for a potluck to share with friends and extended family, there’s haluski.

My  mother recently confided to me that my father—a man who sprang from the Appalachian coalmines and farm fields—did not appreciate haluski when they were married. He was a man who wanted cast-iron fried potatoes at least twice week, along side any kind of meat and vegetable. She tried to harness all of her creativity and curiosity to create a meat and potatoes lifestyle for him—and she did so willingly. But the truth is some of my parents worst disagreements were, indeed, about food.

Funny,how time mellows people. I can’t imagine Dad turning his nose up at any dish, let alone haluski, that my stepmother would set on the table in front of him. And I can’t imagine that my mother would even try to squash any of her own culinary impulses to satisfy anybody else. She lives alone and likes it that way.

Mom still makes huge pots of haluski and eats it for days. Sometimes even for breakfast. At this point in my life, I prefer to live with my husband, a man who appreciates a good, earthy, haluski every now and then, but I am not sure just what he would think about haluski in the morning—at least not before coffee.

Is there a special dish you can relate to your relationship?

Haluski

If you don’t
have the time or patience to make your own noodles, you can substitute
prepackaged wide noodles, such as egg noodles. Remember, you can steam the
cabbage and add the butter or margarine in when the noodles are drained and
ready.

1 egg

2 cups flour

Salt

1 teaspoon, milk

1 medium onion

1 cabbage

Beat your egg
well. Stir in 2 cups of flour and a pinch of salt. Gradually add 1 teaspoon of
milk, continuing to stir as you go, until the dough is stiff. Roll out thin
(1/8-inch thick) on a floured board. Cut dough into 1-inch by 2-inch strips.

Drop the strips,
one at a time, into a pot of boiling water and cook for 3 minutes. Drain, rinse
and let dry. While the noodles are drying, saute 1 medium chopped onion in a
tablespoon of butter. Chop a head of cabbage into thin strips, add to the
onion, and cook until tender. Add the noodles to the cabbage and stew for about
30 minutes.

My Flippin’, Twirlin’ Kitchen Queen Mama

My mother donned brown polyester pants and a gold smock to work as a hotel maid scrubbing floors and toilets. But when she stepped into her own kitchen, she wore a frilly apron, played Vivaldi on the stereo, and with a flip of her spatula and more than a pat or two of butter, became the queen of her realm. THE KITCHEN QUEEN OF FISH POT ROAD celebrates my memories of Mom’s Western Pennsylvania kitchen. She proved every day that living a good life has more to do with attitude than with money.

This blog will offer recipes and stories about growing up in Western Pennsylvania and, of course, reflections about my mother and the food of my memory. In the meantime, here’s a few of the kitchen rules my mother often spouted:

  • Bigger is always better. (Bigger slices, thicker pie, more of everything.)
  • Never skimp on butter.
  • Icing is for sissies. Powdered sugar is prettier, takes less time, and isn’t as sweet.
  • A little bit of hard work never killed anybody.Put a little music on and scrub your kitchen floor.
  • You can use a cast-iron skillet for almost everything.
  • Being poor is no excuse for crime, for a lack of cleanliness, lack of self-respect, or eating junk food like potato chips or sugary cereals.
  • Low-fat, my ass.
  • If you use your hands for mixing, it always tastes better.
  • Just fry it and don’t worry about your arteries, it’s impolite to mention arteries at the dinner table, anyway.

I’m betting that we all know a Kitchen Queen of Fish Pot Road. Or maybe we each have a little of the Kitchen Queen in us. I know I do. Welcome to my blog. I’d love to hear from you.

Five things I thought about during my morning run:

1. I hope this dog knows how much I love her. I mean, it's frigid and here I am running with my dog because she needs the exercise.
2. It's weird running in place for the Wii. I much prefer running outside.
3. I am really enjoying the novel I'm editing and I hadn't expected to.
4. Made some purple cabbage last night. Eric wanted to see if I could make the kind like they serve at the Edelweiss. It was good—but not quite as good. Almost there. I don't think they saute their cabbage in BUTTER. 😉 I also don't think they use aged balsamic vinegar. Tess refused to eat at the table because of the smell. It really disturbed her.
5. The coolest thing about being a realtor MUST BE getting to see inside of everybody's houses.

Five things I thought about during my run:

1. OK. OK. OK, Bono. I promise I will be very still, if you, um, er, run to me…
2. Part of the sky looked liked yesterday's beautiful sky. The other part looked like butter.
3. Which made me think about butter and how I could not live without
it. Horrible to ponder what goes in margarine. Mom was always right
about that.
4. Speaking of Mom. My memoir, which focuses on my Mom and our life in
Western Pa. is on the market. An editor contacted my agent yesterday
about it. She hasn't read it yet, but hopes to get to it next week.
What she said was "If you're talking to Mollie, let her know a girl
from Sharon will be reading her proposal." Sharon is in the same neck
of the woods as where I grew up…It's a small world. And I hope this
is a good thing. 😉
5. Looking forward to my interview with the new chef a Zynodoa today. I
always look forward chatting with chefs. But this young man is special.
Not only is he the talented new chef at this fabulous restaurant, but
he's the son of Theresa Curry, a friend of mine.