Mom’s home cooking

For many, Thanksgiving presents the year’s biggest culinary challenge. For Mom, it was April Fool’s Day.

Courtesy Margaret Knight.

Cooking was not something my mother ever needed to learn when she was growing up — her family had a cook. When she married my father, a young minister just graduated from the Episcopal Divinity School, she suddenly became a wife who needed to make regular meals for her husband. She didn’t even know how to boil an egg. My mother was a resourceful, creative, and determined person, though — plus, she was good at practical jokes. In a letter to her parents soon after she was married, my mother wrote about making breakfast for my father on April Fools’ Day: “This morning I gave him his boiled egg for breakfast, only I just dipped it in the hot water, and you can see how poorly I usually do cook the eggs because he didn’t even realize at first it was a joke — just thought it was worse than usual.”

After they were married, my father was in charge at the Cathedral Farm in Hubbardston, where choirboys from downtown Boston’s St. Paul’s Cathedral came to experience life on a farm — breathing fresh air, milking cows, tending pigs and chickens, growing vegetables, and generally living clean, hard-working, outdoor lives. My mother helped when she could, but she was busy having babies.

The first summer at the farm, my mother stayed behind on the day my father and all the boys went off to climb Mount Monadnock. Ma Markley, the farm cook, went too, and left my mother in charge of making the spaghetti for dinner. Knowing my mother’s cooking skills, Ma had measured out the amount of spaghetti and left illustrations and a timetable of how and when to cook it so it’d be ready for the hungry boys when they returned.

At the appointed time, my mother put the huge pots of water on to boil, and started adding the pasta. She’d never cooked pasta before, but she could see as she put it in the pot that there wouldn’t be nearly enough for all those boys. So she added a little more. And then a little more. Really, Ma didn’t leave out nearly enough pasta. Soon the spaghetti began to swell and pack in so densely that my mother could barely squeeze in a spoon to stir the pot.

The situation was not good. The budget at the farm was tight, and my father had high moral standards to defend — wasting food was not far down the list of cardinal sins. And Ma Markley was a strong-minded woman who had raised her children by herself, and she knew how to pinch pennies. Neither was going to be pleased to come home and see the enormous quantity of spaghetti, enough to feed not just the choir but the entire congregation.

My mother had grown up during the Great Depression, and was not one to waste things, either. Luckily, there were the young pigs, always hungry. My mother took a pot of the long, glutinous spaghetti worms out to the pigpen, and dumped it into the feeding trough. The pigs went to work, and my mother figured her back was covered.

A little while later, with the choirboys due back at any minute, she started worrying that one of them would stop in to feed the pigs before dinner. She went to check on them and make sure they’d finished their piggish work. Out at the pen, there were the piggies, evenly strung out in the trough sound asleep, between piles of spaghetti, snoring peacefully with their tummies bulging.

I don’t know how the story ended for my mother that day, but I do know she had plenty of fun over the years involving food and practical jokes, particularly with my unsuspecting father. Once she encouraged my sister to give him the birdseed treats that she had made at Girl Scouts, to hang out for the birds. He crunched into them gamely. More than once, my mother made flannel pancakes on April first. These were rounds of flannel dipped in pancake batter, cooked, and served with maple syrup. Mouthwatering, until you tried to cut into them. Jell-O was a frequent dessert for us, easy to make and fun to eat in its wobbliness. Sometimes my mother would flip the serving bowl of Jell-O in a full circle before she dished it out. Usually it stayed in the bowl, but then there was the time it didn’t. Wasting food again!

Perhaps it was because she didn’t grow up cooking that my mother was so game to take on the job of making daily meals for a husband and, eventually, six children. She never complained about it, and years later, when I asked her, she always claimed that she had been happy to do it. Maybe the addition of a dash of humor made it work.