In my mother’s time, education for women necessarily included at least one course in the domestic arts. As a result, the only high school textbooks from her time, save a couple of volumes of Shakespeare and Silas Marner, that I still have around are about nutrition. Florence Willard and Lucy H. Gillett’s Dietetics for High Schools: A Textbook in Nutrition and Food Economics, copyright 1920 and reprinted in 1931, only four years before her high school graduation, is among them. Even though salad isn’t even mentioned, it does include complex formulas for calculating the proper daily dose of Vitamin G and meal planning for a family which includes household staff. None of her college textbooks remain, most probably because she majored in art at a Texas college.
The cuisines my mother cooked best were Turkish, Japanese and Mexican. And whatever the latest weird thing that Sunset magazine might mention, like snails or dandelions. She thought nothing of whipping up her own phyllo dough, using a broomstick to roll it out on the dining room table or curing olives in the bathtub. Her attempts at American food were best left on the table. We would beg her to please not make us suffer through her attempts at American home cooking, because she couldn’t resist enriching stuff like meatloaf with bean sprouts or oatmeal cookies with mineral oil. I am not making this up. She viewed cooking as an art and science. The artistic part was making it look good and taste bad, and the science was a matter of making the kitchen a laboratory for experiments. The modern chefs who’re into foam and raw food have nothing on her.
Consequently, my mother’s progeny rarely cook. And when we do, we look upon ingredients like salt with awe and wonder, deploying it with the frequency usually reserved for heroin among Southern Baptists — but our larders usually contain no less than eight kinds of rice, six forms of ginger, and pine nuts.
When she’s not off with her camera, San Miguel de Allende expatriate Billie Mercer is known for her culinary talents. In More from the Kitchen, she set forth a creole recipe for baked fish in which she made her own substitutions, swapping sea bass for red fish and taking out the butter. I couldn’t resist adding my own comment about how poaching the fish would make it easier, which led to another commentator substituting pork for fish, and yet another leaving out the celery and adding capers. And on and on. Give it time, and Billie’s recipe for creole baked fish may come closer to resembling oatmeal cookies on a stick.
Which leads me to how I’m approaching today’s comida. The Tampiqueña en tiras I plucked out of the freezer could use some marinade, I decided, so I reached for whatever was at hand. Candied ginger, sliced garlic, orange tomatoes seemed to work, doused with a slug of tequila. And I’ll string it up on some skewers before grilling. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.