Both of my parents were good cooks. So it amazes me that for all the memories I have of my parents, my memories of specific meals, or food, are scant, piecemeal. Nevertheless, my mother’s cooking especially has been a large influence in my own love of cooking, and how I cook. What I remember are simply bits of pieces of meals and experiences and yet they were very formational.
Probably part of the reason I don’t remember much of those early meals is that I was young, and was only 11 when we moved from our house in Point Independence, to the Union Villa, the hotel, bar and restaurant that they bought at the end of 1961. We moved into an apartment on the first floor of the hotel shortly before my 12th birthday. So, I think of my parents’ cooking, my mom’s especially as before the Union Villa, during the seven years we lived there, and the years following the Union Villa. In addition, during these years, my dad was in the Merchant Marine and at sea, and in other ports, much more than at home, so family meals are a bit of a blur, if a family meal means everyone at the table.
Before the Union Villa
I remember watching my mother decorate my birthday cake for my fourth birthday. I remember Thanksgivings and mom’s oyster dressing, that I thought was awful (although I love it now and make it whenever I can, when oysters are in season). I remember my mom picking up my grandmother Marcellino, and bringing her to our house for dinner and then taking her home. What I remember most though are the plates we ate on, I remember when she bought them at the hardware store/lumber yard. They were Melmac, some were a dusty rose, and others were grey. Fashionable in the 1950’s. The dining room furniture was blond oak, also very fashionable in the 1950’s.
Mealtime Traditions with Dad
These were simple, but for me unforgettable. Somewhere along the line, dad decided to amend the traditional Catholic table grace. When we got to the end of the prayer he would add, “God bless the provider of this table!” I suppose he did not want to be left out; to his addition, mom would retort, “…and the cook!”
I remember on many occasions when he was home, my dad pushing his chair back from the table after a meal, and saying to my mother, “My dear, I have dined sufficiently!” That was especially memorable because it was a real word and a rather large one. My dad was a sailor and talked like it, so much of his conversation was sprinkled with four letter words, and larger ones but with the same type of sentiments. Although I am sure that my mother did not invent this description, he was one of those folks who could swear two minutes straight, and not repeat himself.
In those early years before the Union Villa, he would make fried fish and jag (jagacita), a Portuguese rice dish. There are probably dozens of ways to make this, but he cooked it using salt pork, chopped onion, converted rice and peas or lima beans. It was his traditional, “just got home from sea and I’m going to cook dish.”
The alternate tradition for his just getting home from sea, was my favorite, “Let’s go out for dinner!” I have only recently come to realize, that this is probably the source of my enjoying going out to eat, and my desire to do so on special occasions. Sometimes, just because it is a welcome break from cooking and cleaning up. Not to recreate something lost; but the memory is so potent, that it does beckon, creating a humble, but hopeful expectation of something that speaks of love.
My favorite places that we went to, no longer exist. The China Maid Restaurant had Juke Box selection boxes at each table. There were small metal handles at the top of each page so you could ‘turn the pages’ to see what songs were on the juke box without having to leave the table make a selection. It was fun to browse through and pick out songs. The food was good too, though nothing really stands out, so many years have past
My other favorite place to eat was The White Rabbit, which was attached to Nickerson’s Bar. I loved the dinner rolls, that were like squared hamburger buns, buttered and grilled, toasty and delicious. Their seafood platter was my favorite dish. The waitresses wore dresses that were large flower prints, and white nurses shoes to ease tired feet. We sat in wooden booths, and the atmosphere was different than when we ate at tables in the bar. Pretty much any place we would go out to eat would have a bar, that was a given.
The Union Villa
The menu at the Union Villa was limited to pizzas, spaghetti and meatballs, meatball sandwiches (Grinders, or subs) and traditional Grinders (Italian subs) and occasional stuffed quohogs. (Pronounced Ko-Hogs). I never ate mom’s stuffed quohogs, though now I wish I had. We could not eat dinner together when the bar was open. Somebody had to tend bar, and somebody had to cook, so we more or less ate separately.
Even though I still love pizza and spaghetti, there had to be other foods. Mostly I remember mom making fried rice, chicken or pork chops that she made in the electric frying pan. Meals were simple, because most of the cooking in the kitchen was for the restaurant, so our food had to be made concurrently with the restaurant fare. As amazing as it sounds, we went out for breakfast every morning, to Arthur’s Restaurant, just around the corner. Mom tried making a family breakfast for us at the Villa, but when customers would hang over the back of the booth and say, “Gee, Maggie, you got any for me?” that was the end of that. So off to Arthur’s we went. We sat at the counter, but it was the only meal we could eat together.
Customer Appreciation Meals
We lived in a beach town, and the liquor license was seasonal. That meant that the Union Villa opened on April 1st and closed on November 30th. On opening day, and closing day, mom laid out a feast. She bought large lobsters, cooked them and made lobster salad. She cleaned the large claws and placed them on the table for decoration. There were trays of sandwiches, in addition to appetizers, and the requisite chips, nuts, etc. But it was how everything looked that caught my attention. It wasn’t just the taste, but the look of a party. I thought I wanted to be able to do that. I never wandered into catering for lots of reasons, but those customer appreciation events caught my eye. Mom made everything look special and taste good.
Dad’s Version of Customer Appreciation was a little different. There were roofers, and I suppose some other construction workers who stayed at the hotel by the week. Once a year he invited “the fellas” to a home cooked New England Boiled Dinner (corned beef, cabbage, potatoes, carrots and turnips). He also made beef stew for them once a year. I was a brat, loved dad, but those meals I was happy to get an invitation to eat elsewhere, or have spaghetti.
Off season cooking was much different, but still my memory does not serve me well on this. Mom made boiled butternut squash, roast beef, but not pot roast, so the beef was roasted dry. She loved wild rice and back in the day, Stouffer’s made Spinach Souffle, something I haven’t seen in a long time. Unlike the stove in the restaurant kitchen, the stove in our apartment was apartment sized. The kitchen was small, there was no counter space to speak of, no dishwasher, and microwave ovens did not exist yet.
Everything the restaurant served was homemade. The pizza dough was made from scratch, meatballs, sauces. everything was made in our kitchen, nothing was pre-packaged. Although I am not sure how it came to be, mom made most of the restaurant food, but dad made the spaghetti sauce. So he kept his hand in, but mostly he was behind the bar and took care of the whisky and beer. I helped in the kitchen as needed, squeezing canned whole tomatoes to get the pulp out, making pizza dough when needed, although mostly my help was limited to things like folding pizza boxes. But in family businesses, you do what needs to be done and it was a way to be with my parents.
There is an important thread here, and part of the reason I wanted to write this story, because it leads into my current obsession with making bread. The short year I spent overseas with my first husband, the only food from home we could not get on the base (trying not to call it ‘junk food’) was pizza. So I began to make my own, which is something that I did often when the kids were growing up. Although I can only claim to be a novice bread maker at this stage, working with flour, yeast, salt and water, and also baking as a way to deal with sorrow or stress is just part of who I have been, who I am.
I hope you will come back to read more. What about you? If you are an adult of any age, who loves to cook or bake, have you ever explored the roots and connections of that love? What have you learned about yourself in the process?
Not holding back the tide,
Copyright 2020-2024 Michele Somerville, The Beach Girl Chronicles and https://msomervillesite.WordPress.com
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