My devotion to good food comes from my mother’s kitchen. Not flavor, nor nutrition alone, nor the refuge of our family table, more so her stable and flexible practice influences what I choose to cook.
Mom held the humble and unvarnished wood handle of her favorite knife as if it was the most important tool in the world. Out of the blue, she’d open her knife drawer, remove a round gadget, and slide the blade through it. With caution, she’d touch her thumb to the razor-sharp edge.
“Don’t ever touch this,” she’d say.
My eyes widened in awe of her skill and courage.
Mom used this knife for everything she sliced. She cut up a whole chicken for dinner one day and carve a pork roast the next. Swift and exact, she chopped onions, celery, and hardboiled eggs for her famous potato salad. That meant she’d soon be packing the car for a picnic.
But when it came to peeling potatoes, Mom picked up a paring knife, as she did for peeling and coring pie apples. That meant to expect company for dinner. Mom went through dozens of those stubby knives while she sharpened a smooth curve in the middle of her beloved blade.
A meat and potatoes Irishman, Dad wouldn’t eat casseroles, stews, or soups. He preferred his beef, spuds, and carrots on a plate. With these culinary limitations, my sisters and I never tasted a tuna noodle or chicken and rice casserole while growing up.
But Dad couldn’t smother our mother’s epicurean spirit. On his bowling night, she simmered a pot of spaghetti sauce or baked a pan of lasagna.
A woman who couldn’t resist a new recipe, Mom took to Chop Suey when the dish appeared on the cuisine scene in the mid-sixties. My older sister’s high-school boyfriends (self-proclaimed “bums”) got wind of Mom’s latest homemade experiment and dropped in on Friday nights in hopes of a meal.
Fifty-three years later, long after my parents’ divorce and the demise and subsequent rise of Mom’s family table, I decide to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day with Shepherd’s Pie.
My husband peels potatoes because he will eat the lion’s share. I chop onion and garlic with my Chicago Cutlery and sauté the seasoning in ground beef (you may prefer lamb). In go salt, pepper, tomato paste, Worcestershire sauce, white wine, ground thyme and rosemary. Peas. Corn. Chopped carrots.
I taste. The wine and spices make all the difference.
With my favorite wood spatula, I spread the meat mixture in a deep ovenproof dish. The aroma makes my salivary glands weep. My mother’s would too.
Then I dollop on Mel’s mashed potatoes—thick, creamy, buttery russets blended with an egg. I drop pads of butter on top.
How could Dad refuse this?
I slide the Shepherd’s Pie into the oven where it bakes while I wash and dry dishes and knives.
“Don’t ever touch this,” I hear Mom’s voice.
Dear Reader, how I wanted to! That meant someday I’d love to cook like my mother.
Email Iris at email@example.com.