Mother, Love and the A & P

Recipe cards from 1971.

Four Decker Fruit Tart

From pastry dough based on 3 cups flour, roll out four 10” rounds. Place on baking sheet, or backs of 9” cake tins. Fold under 1/2 inch around edges. Flute. Prick well. Bake in hot oven 475 degrees….

It’s been over 50 years since I’ve typed the above words in that exact order from a recipe for a gunky (but delish) 60’s confection, 51 years to be exact. Now, I’m doing it again, as an exercise in memory.

In 1971, when I was in 10th grade at high school, I helped my mother type out her favourite recipes onto file cards, many of which I still have – and treasure – today.

I found them again in 2009, in a hidden drawer in a Chinese cabinet, shortly before my mother’s passing.

My mother, a bilingual legal secretary, could type up a storm in both English and French and I was just learning to type, but she left me to perform the honours for some reason, hence all the typos and misspellings. 3 ripe bababas, lemong, seperate the eggs.

Today, half a century later, as I meditate on these yellowed, oil-stained, recipe cards and their deeper meaning, I realize that this may well have been the only sustained project my Mother and I ever worked on together.

My mother was a doer, not a teacher, and her only creative outlet (outside of coordinating her work outfits) came in the kitchen and at the bridge table. She didn’t have much patience, any patience for that matter, so she commandeered the kitchen, using me only to convert fractions as she doubled and tripled the recipes and to sift the mountains of flour for her classic cakes. I sometimes helped her stir the various batters with our little yellow Mixmaster with the motor that smelled of burning plastic as it heroically whizzed away. For this reason, I still can’t make a pie crust – even after watching my mother ply so many apple pies right in front of me, but who bakes any more, anyway?

My Aunt Flo, me and my brother and my mother at Old Orchard Beach 1962 ish. My nickname was “Stringbean” or “SkinnyHymer” so all that Cafe Bavarian (my fave dessert from the inside of a Carnation Milk label) didn’t hurt me.

My mother , Marie-Marthe Crepeau Nixon was a terrific cook, at least that is how I remember it.

But reading the recipes on these battle-scarred cards I realize these are mostly very simple back- of -the -magazine recipes, using products advertised within the pages like Fry’s Chocolate or Hunt’s tomato sauce and in the case of the above 4 Decker trifle-style dessert, Delmonte fruit cocktail.

I also realize, now, fifty years later, that I didn’t like some of these recipes. The chicken mole was too authentic using unsweetened chocolate. The tokay grape aspic or gelatin mould, so trendy at mid-century, well, what can I say. Yuk.

I sort of liked the hot tomales, except the sauce was too hot for my immature taste buds. All that tobasco.

But most of these recipes I remember as rib-tickling: a simple lasagna (you could use “real” swiss instead of mozzarella) that only had one herb, rosemary. It called for two teaspoons of olive oil, but I suspect my mother used Mazola. The beef stroganoff (another 60’s favourite) called for one cup of white wine. My parents never had wine in the house, so I doubt my mom added that ingredient.

My mother’s go-to meals are not on the cards I still have: her fabulous Italian spaghetti that when cooled had at least an inch of fat on top and her equally hearty chili con carne, from which I would pick out all the mushrooms before it hit the table. (She fried the hamburger first for the chili. She put the raw beef into the simmering sauce for the spaghetti.) Her southern fried chicken put the Colonel to shame. It attracted the neighbourhood kids to many a picnic on our back porch.

I even adored her calf’s liver and onions, ‘as delicious as steak’ she said, and it was.

My mother’s only heirloom recipe in her writing for turkey stuffy from her mom. A real cholesterol bomb. One pound of sausage meat and 1/2 pound of butter.

Yes, I remember my mother for being a fabulous cook, despite the fact she obviously didn’t come to her marriage at 30 armed with years of experience and a file folder filled with secret family recipes. She looked to Redbook and Ladies Home Journal for ideas, just like many other new ‘housewives’ of the era.

My mother was born in 1921, to middle-aged parents who, by that time, were very well off. She went to a fancy boarding school nearby, learning Greek and Latin but probably not domestic science. I doubt she lifted a finger when at home.

Her unschooled older sisters who who had known leaner times were the ones who helped out at home. In her twenties, my mother lived with her widowed mom (famous for her fatty tortiere and savory baked beans) and two sisters on Oxford in the Notre Dame de Grace section of Montreal, one of whom, Cecile, is listed as ‘housekeeper’ on the Voting Register. My mother was working as a ‘stenographer’ for a movie distribution company down the street, RKO, so she likely helped support the family.

Yes, my mother was a great cook (I seem to remember) but one lousy home economist, but what could you expect from a “daddy’s girl” who, by her own admission, was always exceeding her allowance at boarding school.

If there was a more expensive way of making something, my mother would find it. She would buy Kraft dinner for the macaroni and discard the little aluminum packets of processed cheese product, adding her own fresh cheeses and herbs and spices. The metallic packets piled up 40 high in our pantry.

The A and P on Queen Mary and Earnscliffe, Snowdon. BANQ. In 1960 there was a bowling alley over top. My mother loved to bowl but I don’t remember every going there.

I recall 1964, when we would go grocery shopping at the A& P on Queen Mary at Earnscliffe. It was an old-fashioned (see dingy) store, opened 22 years before, with wooden floors covered in sawdust to soak up the slimy spillages; the pleasant aroma of their famed Eight O’clock coffee; grey display counters filled with 1960’s staple vegetables, like iceberg lettuce and broccoli, big baskets of juicy peaches, but only for a few weeks in late summer, and all the 20th century commercial brands that made America great.

My mother would fill to heaping two shopping carts with food. The cashier would often ask, “Are those BOTH yours?” I seem to recall the bill coming to a whopping 60 dollars. We were only a family of five. 1

Prices in 1962 in Quebec City from Le Soleil newspaper BANQ. My mother’s coffee was instant Maxwell House with Carnation Milk. I made a bazillion cups for her.

What made my mother’s food so tasty and so memorable? Was it the simple ingredients? Was it the fact that she never overcooked the high quality meats she purchased from Queen Mary Provisions, a specialty store? Was it the Hollandaise or white sauce that always topped the lightly steamed veggies we ate?

Maybe her meals were so satisfying because she had no fear of cholesterol and didn’t skimp on the seasoning and, truth be told, didn’t hesitate to add cascades of Accent to any soup or stew.

Or maybe, there’s another reason. Maybe her meals are so memorable because cooking for her family was the only positive way my mother, who was bright as hell, frustrated with her domestic life, and bipolar, expressed her love for us. Oh, yea. That last one. That’s clearly the reason I treasure these scruffy little yellow recipe cards from over 50 years ago.

  1. I did the research and according to Statistics Canada historical 60 dollars every two weeks was the average amount spent by families every two weeks in Canadian cities.

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