The person who taught me to cook, my beloved stepmother Mary, died in January at the age of 95. She came into my life when I was 14 and motherless, lost in a sea of boys. Our family was in a state of disarray, and with amazing grace, she put it back together again.
Mary, aka Mumsie (my stepsister, who was also part of this wonderful bargain, called her Mumsie, as in “Mumsie and Daughtsie,” so I did too), was a woman of tremendous style and fun. She was also a great cook. I will never grasp how she managed to go seamlessly from being a single mother of one for 15 years to being a wife and mother of five; from turning out meals for two to preparing festive family dinners for seven or more every night when we were all home during school vacations. The French would say of those evenings, “c’était la fête tous les soirs“: It was a party every night.
She made dishes you just didn’t see in mid-1960s suburban Connecticut: ratatouille, pan-cooked Italian peppers, arugula salads. She roasted lamb rare. Roast beef and Yorkshire pudding were not for Christmas dinner; they were for dinner … maybe once a week! So much meat. I always said, when I became a vegetarian in the ’70s, that the reason had nothing to do with principles; I simply had had my quota of meat by then.
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Mary tricked my father, who was vegetable-phobic, into eating vegetables. One August night during the summer after they were married, he told her that he didn’t eat corn on the cob because it gave him stomach trouble (he was convinced that all vegetables gave him stomach trouble). She took a paring knife and deftly scored each row down the middle of the kernels. “If you score the kernels,” she told my father, “the corn will be much more digestible.” This was totally bogus, but he fell for it, and from then on we would have amazing corn fests every night throughout the summer. “It’s a short season,” we would say, as we passed the platter around the table for the fourth time, butter dripping down our chins.
My education in the kitchen began with salads. “Go in the kitchen and help Mary with the salad,” my father would say to me and my sister, while he and my brothers carried on in the den. She gave me the ingredients for a vinaigrette, some measuring spoons and a whisk, and told me what to do with them (3 parts oil to 1 part lemon juice or vinegar, dry mustard, salt, pinch of sugar, marjoram, pepper). This was much more fun than washing and drying lettuce (three different kinds — romaine, red leaf and Boston — unlike the iceberg salads with Russian dressing of my childhood), a task I learned early on to relegate to my sister and friends. There were no salad spinners then; we had a folding mesh lettuce basket that you swung around outside, weather permitting, hoping you would not dislocate your shoulder. I learned to slice the mushrooms and the radishes thin, to score the sides of the cucumber before slicing it; I discovered the avocado.
I didn’t grow up cooking by my mother’s side, as some girls did. I was a teenager before I became interested. Then Mary taught me by giving me the tools and telling me what to do or pointing me to a recipe, sometimes from afar. The summer I started cooking (beyond vinaigrette and salads) was the summer between my junior and senior years in high school. I was 17, I had a job at the local newspaper, and my parents were not around much because my father, a writer, was working on a play in New York City. I told Mary I wanted to learn to cook.
“What do you want to cook?”
“The things we eat,” I responded.
I do remember Mary walking me through a very simple spaghetti sauce — showing me how to cook the onion and add the garlic, then brown the meat, etc. But mainly, I would tell Mary what I wanted to cook, and she would tell me what book the recipe was in, the most frequently used being Julia Child’s “The French Chef,” Irma Mazza’s “Accent on Seasoning” and Mildred Knopf’s “Cook, My Darling Daughter.” If I wanted to make something really simple, like broiled lamb chops, she’d just tell me what to buy at the butcher’s and how long to broil the chops on each side.
Every day after work, I would go to the market (and charge the food to my parents), then go home and make dinner for myself and my sister, and whoever else was around (our boyfriends, who knew a good deal when they saw it). Cooking was fun for me, and easy; my food tasted good because I’d had such good food at home, I knew what I wanted it to taste like. By summer’s end I was giving dinner parties, and continued to do this when I returned to boarding school, where I would borrow a teacher’s house from time to time. But it never occurred to me then that I’d make a career of this passion.
My sister and I have always been amused by Mumsie’s adoring, proud line about my work, something she said when I was promoting my second cookbook in the early 1980s. I was preparing a press luncheon that my parents hosted in their beautiful Los Angeles apartment (they had moved to L.A. in the mid-’70s), and she exclaimed — “she took a frying pan and a piece of paper and forged a career!” But it was Mary who gave me the frying pan … and the wok … and the casserole … and the Sabatier knife, and the food memories and first recipes … and always, the support and encouragement.
Spinach Salad With Mary’s Basic Salad Dressing
The dressing is a slight variation on the recipe for Mary’s Basic Salad Dressing that I published in my first cookbook, “The Vegetarian Feast.” The spinach salad recipe is one I found scrawled on the endpapers of “Accent on Seasoning,” a cookbook Mary used so often that the cover fell off when I removed it from the shelf as I was cleaning out her apartment.
For Mary’s Basic Salad Dressing:
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon white or red wine vinegar or sherry vinegar
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ to ½ teaspoon dry mustard or 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
Freshly ground pepper to taste
1 small garlic clove, put through a press or puréed in a mortar and pestle
½ teaspoon dried marjoram
1 teaspoon chopped fresh herbs (such as tarragon, parsley, dill; optional)
9 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, or a mixture of grapeseed or sunflower oil and olive oil
For the salad:
10 ounces (1 bag) fresh spinach (this was before baby spinach; 1 bag baby spinach could be substituted today)
6 strips crisp bacon
1 bunch scallions, sliced
¼ pound fresh mushrooms, sliced
1. Whisk together the lemon juice, vinegar, salt, mustard, pepper, garlic and herbs. Whisk in the oil or oils.
2. Stem, wash and dry spinach (Mary underlined “dry” in her handwritten recipe). Put in bowl, crumble bacon over top, add sliced scallions and mushrooms. Chill until ready to serve.
3. Toss with dressing and serve.
Variation: In the recipe scrawled inside Mary’s book, she includes an egg yolk in the vinaigrette.
Top photo: Mumsie, in the kitchen. Credit: Courtesy of Martha Rose Shulman