pause. bow head. strike sullenly pose.
“did you see the obituaries?” my mother asked, first thing in the day. she was insistent. she was bothered. “peg died.”
peg bracken, she meant. peg, who might as well have been our next-door neighbor growing up. the one who passed virginia slims over the picket fence. poured a cocktail soon as the kiddies polished off the afterschool snack. i’m thinking her only use for her apron was to wipe her muddy shoes.
despite–or because of–the anarchy, my mother consulted her. followed her. stood off in the corner of the kitchen with her, often, snickering in a most unusual way.
she was apparently, my mother’s alter ego. she was, maybe, the trouble maker my mother wasn’t. she was, in 1960, when her book came out, her cookbook, her anti-cookbook, really, “the i hate to cook book,” a breath of something new in the simmering winds over by the range (for what had been the stove became the range somewhere there in the latter half of the last century).
her most famous recipe, perhaps, the one that’s been unfurled for all the obits, is the one for “skid road stroganoff.”
it goes like this:
“start cooking those noodles, first dropping a bouillon cube into the water. brown the garlic, onion and crumbled beef in the oil. add the flour, salt, paprika and mushrooms, stir, and let it cook five minutes while you light a cigarette and stare sullenly at the sink.”
you must love a woman who whisks “sullenly” into a recipe for stroganoff. even if the thought of stroganoff has you grabbing for the counter while you tamper down the urge to gag.
growing up in my house, that blue book with the funny drawings–the ones done, by the way, by the fellow who drew the daylights out of eloise at the plaza–stood mostly for one dish: a dish once named chicken rice roger. but in our house, now, it is mostly known as chicken rice grammy, for it is the perfect embodiment of all things cozy in a covered dish.
it a.) comes bubbling out of the oven, it’s b.) made with stuff dumped from a can, and c.) it is the surest cure for a bad day that i can think of.
of course, i’ve gussied it up over the years. but still i follow its cardinal rule. i mostly mess around with things that can be found in tin cans. i add artichoke hearts, which might be fresh or might be frozen, but from a can are just as good. i dump in broth, which again is happy from a can, is practically unheard of in my house in any made-from-scratch rendition.
it seems only fitting that we all bow our heads today. for i am guessing peg made her way, in one form or another, into the kitchens of our youth.
perhaps your mama made stayabed stew, sole survivor, or spinach surprise. certainly while james beard was informing half the country to saute, a fancy french verb that stood up the more american “to fry,” ms. bracken, a working mother who used her maiden name, mon Dieu, was subverting the other half.
fact is, she and betty friedan arose together. it’s just that bracken was a little quieter in her subversion. she was infiltrating suburban kitchens while friedan ransacked the bedrooms and beyond.
as the child of the i-hate-to-cook-book era i, of course, revolted. i grew up in a house where hamburger helper was tested for the folks at general mills. if it came, ready-mix, in a box, we were guinea pigs.
is it any wonder, then, that i stopped eating when i was 18? i decided frances moore lappe, she of small planet diet fame, she who wanted all the world to be fed fairly and without animal sacrifice, was more my speed. i worshipped at her altar, complemented protein all through college.
i am old enough, and far away enough, that now i see the humor in that food chain. my mother snickering in her corner, taking shortcuts willy nilly; me in mine, measuring grains, steaming broccoli.
i am old enough, now wise enough, i hope, that i can see the beauty too of a voice that whispered to my mother. told her to dump the long hours at the stove. get out, perhaps, play tennis.
for my mother who grew up with french nuns and a mother who made her wear white gloves, peg bracken was the safest radical she could invite into her kitchen.
if i drank something more than the wimpy white wine i sip each night, i might pour and lift a dry martini.
to peg, who made my mother giggle. to peg, who had her dumping cans all around the kitchen.
in case you’d like a taste o’ peg, here’s what we call chicken rice grammy…
3/4 cup uncooked rice
1 cup mushrooms
1 3/4 cup chicken broth
brown chicken. dump on top of rice, mushroom, onion, broth. bake, covered, at 350 degrees for 1 hour.
(note the lack of specificity up above, no one advising organic broth, basmati rice. just get the job done, seems to be the underlying message. and get it done, it surely did. a more delicious comfort dish, i’m hard-pressed to find.)
did you grow up with peg? was your mama snickering in the corner, staring sullenly into the sink? i thought it might be fitting to strike up a write-like-peg contest. feel free to pen your own bracken-esque recipe below. (use words like sullen with abandon, please)….and i would like to cordially invite my very own mama to say, in her words, why she so loved peg bracken….
p.s. i might be late tomorrow, as i must be in court at 9. and i think, even with chicken rice grammy under my belt, my tummy might be churning. so perhaps i’ll play court reporter and fill you in after all the courtroom drama. egad.