I have never been shy about the reality that my late mother, Annalee Carolyn Nelson Bohjalian, was always going to be the first person voted off “Top Chef.” Actually, even that aggrandizes her skills in the kitchen.
Let me try again: My mother’s idea of a home-cooked meal was canned peas, instant mashed potatoes and a chicken breast baked until it looked like a trilobite — all prepared amid the inviting smog of a kitchen that reeked of Eve cigarettes. Everyone had a great time at her dinner parties and no one went home hungry, but this was largely because the guests would often eat dinner before coming and because my parents served enough booze to make Don Draper happy.
It was the era.
Last month I came across her acrylic file box with her favorite recipes. It is at once appalling and touching. Among the discoveries?
She had three recipes for “mock hollandaise sauce.” My favorite was the one from an old Woman’s Day magazine that was basically tennis ball-sized scoops of warmed mayonnaise and sour cream, and then a tablespoon of lemon juice.
She had cards for “mock” crab cakes, “mock” cheesecake, and something called a “mock” cookie pie — suggesting that somewhere in most people’s culinary canon is a genuine cookie pie.
There were magazine recipes with wonderfully retro names, such as the “Potato Tornado,” “The Hurry Curry,” and “the Broccoli Rocket.” This last one is essentially boiled and pulverized frozen broccoli and a can of mushroom soup that is then shaped like a rocket. In theory, kids will love it, because we all know the best way to get children to eat their vegetables is to make them inedible but shape them like spaceships.
There is one dip that includes mayonnaise, ketchup (spelled catsup), and mustard — a sort of condiment smorgasbord. And who could ever forget the “Funky Fruit Mingle” — what today we call a “fruit cup.”
There were also at least a half-dozen recipes for curried chicken, though I swear I have no memory of my mother ever serving curried chicken when I was growing up.
But there were a number of recipes that I did recall, and I remember them fondly — especially the ones she wrote meticulously by hand on her index cards. There was what she referred to with great gusto and a horrific French accent as her “pots de creme” — or as she would say it, “Poh [really spit out that P] Duh Cre [great guttural gagging sound].” It was, as far as I could tell, chocolate pudding with some whipped cream from an aerosol spray can on top. But the only thing my mom loved more after dinner than her vaguely homemade pots de creme were those Eve cigarettes and a piping hot cup of that morning’s coffee. Yummy!
I also recognized her handwritten recipe for “fruits de mer,” or pasta shells, bottled clam juice, frozen shrimp and fake crab. Completely inedible. It was so bad that one Saturday morning not long after my wife and I were married and visiting my parents, we threw out all the “fruits de mer” leftovers when they were shopping and told my mom we had eaten it for lunch. We didn’t want to hurt her feelings, and I am confident that she went to her grave in 1995 believing her “fruits de mer” was a gift to us all.
That’s the thing about those recipe cards that left me both smiling and a little wistful. On her “pots de creme” notes she had scribbled, “Chris loves.” On her beef stew card she had written, “Andy loves,” referring to my brother.
My mom may not have been an especially talented chef. She may not even have liked to cook all that much. But she loved her family, and that legacy can be found in those cards.
Happy Mother’s Day.
(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on May 8, 2011. His next novel, “The Night Strangers,” arrives on October 4, 2011.)