The topic of food traditions has come up recently between me and my friend Kellie at She Finds Graves and on her facebook page. Kellie always makes me laugh, but her thoughts on the matter made me think about my own experiences with food, especially as it pertains to my mother-in-law.
I love my mother-in-law Margie dearly, but we’ve had an interesting relationship over the years, many times because she thought I was starving her child. Margie came from Nassau, Bahamas and had a different background than any I had ever known. Her family ate many exotic things, at least to a Midwestern girl like me; they grew their own vegetables, ate fresh fish from the sea, raised and ate fresh chickens, pigs and goat. She came to Florida at age 16 as a nanny and soon met and married my father-in-law, Alvin Rogers who came from a wealthy, traditional Trenton, New Jersey family. I can only imagine what that was like! Believe me, I’ve heard stories.
When I met and married my husband at seventeen, yes seventeen, I couldn’t even boil water, let alone cook a meal. My mother, a good cook, made good old-fashioned basic meals. Since she worked for many of my growing up years, she was the queen of throwing together quick meals once she got home. She was what was they called a town girl in our area. She married my father, a farm boy who grew up eating all those things you would imagine from a farm; fresh eggs, farm-raised beef, chicken, pork, home-grown vegetables, mashed potatoes, and gravy. Evidently he had eaten his share and to this day he will not eat gravy. My mother was an inventive cook – with five kids and a small budget she could stretch a meal, something she surely learned from her mother and her mother before her. My father always ate whatever my mother put on the table and it was expected they we would also sit and eat without complaint. I do remember whining on many an occasion and believe me “the look” from my father was something you did not want to get!
I was a picky child (hard to believe now from my very healthy size). I couldn’t stand for any of my foods to touch each other. I didn’t like seasonings, sauces, onions, green peppers; everything had to be very plain. When my mother tried to make something new is was always, “Yuk, what is that?” There were many nights as a child I was not allowed to leave the table until I ate all my dinner. Being a stubborn child let’s just say I sat there a looong time.
Now back to where this intersects with my mother-in-law. By the time I met and married my husband I think he was expecting me to pick up the cooking banner. Ought-oh! My repertoire consisted of some basics like meatloaf, Spam (yes I said Spam – we used to love sliced, fried Spam sandwiches as kids), and my idea of fish was Mrs. Paul’s Fish Sticks. Now when I served him the Spam the poor boy looked green. Of course, I had to remind him that his divorced father bought him and his brothers and sisters frozen pot pies for dinner; they were five for a dollar and he would buy something like 100 at a time. But the fish sticks were what broke the camel’s back so to speak. I mean, for a boy who had been raised on fresh fish, shrimp, conch, and lobster he was aghast! I had committed seafood blasphemy.
After a couple of years passed, I asked his mother for a little help. One lesson in particular sticks out in my mind. She decided to teach me how to cook fresh fish. Now I was thinking we would go to the grocery store and pick up a nice cellophane wrapped fish fillet. No, she took me to a fish market and proceeded to teach me the finer points of choosing a WHOLE fish. She asked the fish monger (if that the correct word) to lay out a particular fish for her review– I believe it was a red snapper and this thing was HUGE. I mean it was bigger than my dog! She said to me, “Now, what you do is you press down on the fish’s eye and if it pops back up it is fresh. If it stays in it's old and you don’t want to buy that one.” About this time I am looking at her in horror. I realized I wasn’t going to be cooking a whole fresh fish. Umm…..I don’t think so. No ma’am, this girl won’t be touching any fish eyes!
Having failed on this endeavor she decided to teach me how to bake bread. Now here was something I could really sink my teeth into (pardon the pun)! She proceeds to wipe off her kitchen table and dumps on a pile of flour. I’m like, “Whoa! First, shouldn’t we be doing this on the counter and how much flour do you use?” Now, you have to understand, even from a very young age I have always been a very anal, detailed type of person. I need lists, menus, instructions, visuals, everything written down. She replied “Oh, you just add a little of this and little of that, add the yeast, let it rise, blah, blah, blah, throw in the oven and you’ve got bread. Understand?” Well, needless to say my first attempt at baking bread myself ended up with what looked like pizza crust. So no more bread baking for me – I’ll just buy it at the bakery.
After that, I think she just gave up on me, just wrote me off as useless. Now she really started worrying about her baby. He was surely starving to death. Actually the man was turning out to be a much better cook than me and I certainly wasn’t complaining. However, every time she would come to visit she would leave all kinds of containers of food in our refrigerator and freezer. Most of these were island dishes he had grown up eating. Some he would eat, some not. The most famous were the pigs feet and grits. She would leave containers of these in our freezer and say, “These are Jimmy’s favorite.” Well, umm, no they weren’t, but he was too afraid to tell her he didn’t like pigs feet until the time she decided to actually heat them up for him. He had to man up and tell the truth. At least that stopped the endless supply of pigs feet. Seriously, can you imagine opening your freezer for ice cubes and looking at that?
The one thing Margie makes that we all agree on is her conch fritters and conch salad. She makes the best conch fritters and salad in the world. They are so much better than the ones you buy elsewhere – hers are loaded with conch. For me, the Midwestern girl who grew up eating fish sticks to actually eat and love conch fritters and conch salad, well let’s just say “you’ve come a long way baby!” My husband had been begging her for the recipe for years, which she greedily kept to herself, but she finally caved a couple of years ago and shared it. Of course, he’s the one that makes them, not me. He’s the seafood chef and steak griller, I just stick to the basics – you know, meatloaf, chicken, casseroles and oh – absolutely no Spam.