Welcome to the Misadventures of Widowhood blog!

In January of 2012 my soul mate of 42 years passed away after nearly 12 years of living with severe disabilities due to a stroke. I survived the first year after Don’s death doing what most widows do---trying to make sense of my world turned upside down. The pain and heartache of loss, my dark humor, my sweetest memories and, yes, even my pity parties are well documented in this blog.

Now that I’m a "seasoned widow" the focus of my writing has changed. I’m still a widow looking through that lens but I’m also a woman searching for contentment, friends and a voice in my restless world. Some people say I have a quirky sense of humor that shows up from time to time in this blog. Others say I make some keen observations about life and growing older. I say I just write about whatever passes through my days---the good, bad and the ugly. Comments welcome and encouraged. Let's get a dialogue going! Jean

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Cooking With Mom and other Curious Memories


My life is so boring! How boring you ask? Boring enough that the most exciting thing that happened all weekend is I got a new memory foam and mattress pad for my bed. New sheets, too. Wow, aren’t I living high on the hog! And that brings up a little known fact—at least to city dwellers like me: When a mother pig is laying down and her piglets are suckling from the top row of teats they fare better than the piglets who suckle from the bottom row, and there are scientific reasons for that but they all boil down to the piglets on the top are getting more milk. I found that out while trying to research where the expression, ‘living high on the hog’ came from. (Not to be confused with ‘riding high on the hog’ which is an entirely different idiom if you own a HOG aka a Harley Davidson motorcycle.)

Living high on the hog is an expression my mom used when I was growing up and you’d think it was one of those phrases---like so many others we use---that comes from Shakespearean times, but it’s not. The earliest reference that’s been found in print appeared in the New York Times, in March of 1920: “Southern laborers who are ‘eating too high up on the hog’ (pork chops and ham) and American housewives who ‘eat too far back on the beef’ (porterhouse and round steak) are to blame for the continued high cost of living, the American Institute of Meat Packers announced today.” The idiom had its heyday in media the ‘40s and that makes sense that my mom, a young mother and housewife in that time frame, would incorporate the saying into her language bank.

Growing up, my mom had a strange quirk when talking about meat that to this day I can’t ferret out a reason why she did it. When someone asked her what she was cooking or serving for dinner, she’d always say it was an “old dead” chicken or cow or pig. I remember going into a supermarket in my early twenties and standing in front of a meat case, with no idea what the various cuts of meat were called. I knew how to make roast beef if the slab of meat was sitting in front of me but I didn’t know its name to ask the man at the meat counter to give me what I needed. Back in those days meat didn’t come shrink wrapped on Styrofoam trays with convenient labels stating its cut. 

Now, it doesn’t matter. My full repertoire of cooking meat is (and has always been) limited to roast beef, grilled steaks, baked chicken, salmon or bacon done in the microwave, thick pork chops cooked in a crock pot, fried hamburger for chili and thin sliced steak or chicken in a stir-fry pan. I’m actually quite surprised my list is as long as I just stated, having spent my entire adult life claiming I can’t cook. More accurately I suppose I should have been saying, “I’m too insecure in the kitchen to trust my cooking enough to invite anyone over.” It didn’t help that back in the day when I actually tried to learn how to cook from my mom, she didn’t make it easy. For example, I loved tapioca pudding growing up and her tapioca always tasted so much richer than mine. One day I went to her house and asked her to make it while I watched. “You just follow the directions on the box!” she insisted. But the problem was, she didn’t. Her tablespoons were heaping, not leveled off like I’d learned to do in high school home-ec class. She also added extra egg whites and more vanilla than the side panel recipe on the box called for and she didn’t even realize she was doing it. (I just remembered something---my mother called ‘tapioca’ fish eyes when I was a kid too young to know better.)

Mom made a lot of soups---good soup---and never used a recipe and I did the watch-and-learn a couple of times trying to root out her secrets. But she never measured the spices or other ingredients she used and she always incorporated left-overs into soups so I never got a single recipe out of my once serious attempt to write down Mom’s recipes. And to this day there was one spice she used in just about everything that I still can’t identify. It looked like baby spiders floating on top when she’d first put it in and growing up that’s the only name I knew it by. "But Mom I've got spiders in my soup!" "Just eat them, they're dead!" I do make a pot of soup every once in a while but I don’t puree or consult recipe books, just like my mother didn’t do. Sometimes my soup is actually pretty good. Other times I know if I could just figure out how to buy those “baby spiders” my soup would be much improved. 

My only real claim to fame in the kitchen is at one point in time---the ‘70s and then again in the first decade of this century---I baked a lot of breads. I wanted it to be my signature claim to kitchen fame. There is nothing better than eating homemade sourdough bread with homemade bean and bacon soup and having fish eyes pudding for dessert. Now, that’s living high on the hog in my book. ©

Photo: That's Mom at the cottage, circa mid to late '70s?

36 comments:

  1. My mother died just before Thanksgiving leaving me to become the family dressing maker. I had a few notes and had watched her from time to time but definitely not a recipe. She seasoned everything with bacon drippings, something most of us no longer have in our kitchens. She also had shelves of Home canned vegetables from her garden. Sometimes you have to go with what you have, even if it’s not as good.

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    1. And for me that would be store bought vegetables and dressing. LOL

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  2. Fish eyes! I'd forgotten about that, but it was a joke in our household, too. I loved tapioca pudding, but only if it was made with the small tapioca. The bigger stuff ("pearls") just seemed too gross for words. Now, that large tapioca is used in drinks called bubble tea that seem to be all the rage among youngsters with a lot of discretionary income and an over-sensitivity to fads.

    I enjoy cooking, and grew up with a mother and grandmother who were happy to have me lurking around the kitchen. I still remember one of my favorite Christmas gifts: a metal "kitchen cabinet" that stood about three feet high, and that was filled with tiny cake and pie tins, muffin tins, a miniature rolling pin, and so on. When mom made pies, I'd make one, too, rolling out my tiny crust on the seat of a kitchen chair with that tiny rolling pin. Good memories!

    Now, I'm curious about that spice. I can't for the life of me figure out what might look like floating baby spiders. I gather whatever it was dissolved into the soup eventually, which suggests it might have been a powder. Ah, sweet mysteries of life!

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    1. I don't like the big tapioca either. I just googled bubble tea and found it served in a couple of places near me. I need to try it. I have an "over-sensitivity to fads." LOL Love that expression. Thanks.

      I don't have warm memories of helping my mom make things in the kitchen when I was very young. Not until my teens. I got burned on my face with I was 13 and was afraid of frying after that. My brother was the one who actually liked hanging around the kitchen and he's a much better cook than I am. He had three little kids to practice on and I didn't...makes a difference over time. I did have a little "kitchen set" made out of orange crates that my dad made, still have one piece that I painted white and have on my porch now.

      IF you (or anyone else) has a clue what the baby spider spice was, do let me know. It wasn't a powder that dissolved, it was a plant matter but when it got liquid saturated it wouldn't float anymore like when she'd first put it in. But you could still pick it out in a stew if you were looking for it. I suspect it might be something that in today's world gets ground up finer than back when I was a kid.

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  3. Interesting post! (I've always believed anything from one's personal experience is better than made-up stuff).

    Your mystery herb - could it be five star anise? But I'm puzzled your mum would have used it in those days when no fancy-pansy spices were used. ~ Libby

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    1. Thanks!

      It had a center like the five star anise and about the same number of "points" but the "points" were much thinner and not so perfect. Size wise, I remember it being about the same over-all size as the anise.

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  4. if that spice is not anise then when you find out please tell us!
    I loved tapioca as a kid. No one makes that anymore do they?
    My mom died at age 44 so I never got her recipes. I watched her in the kitchen with such awe and wonder as a kid. She cooked and baked up a storm. I do not. :-)

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    1. You can't buy good, ready made tapioca pudding either... not even worth buying. I think this weekend I'm going to try making it again. It's been SO long since I've had it.

      It's not anise, I'm sure of that. Anise is too perfect. Someone in the family has my mom's box of recipes, I'll have to ask my brother and nieces. Might be a clue in them.

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  5. Spices can come in different sizes, like your tapioca, for example. Still puzzled at that spice being used in rural USA (or Oz) in the 60s and 70s (assuming it is star anise). Someone will know!~Libby

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    1. It's been driving me crazy off and on for decades, Libby. But it's not star anise. They hold their shape when cooked and the "baby spiders" had legs that wiggled.

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  6. I loved this blog Jean. Just talking about your mother started me thinking about my mom and the many things that she created for us to eat. Luckily for me she developed little recipe books and after she died since I was the cook and bakery in our family, I have them but I agree with you, even though I created the dish exactly by the recipe, it still didn't taste the same. I dog an well know that she did things different and that she hadn't put in her recipe. Eventually I created my extras and it tasted good.
    These recipes will end with me because my daughter hates cooking & baking. She'd rather go to the grocery store and buy a cake or cookies. Maybe my granddaughter will enjoy cooking & baking.
    " Baby Spiders " ? I've been checking on any spice that I have used and something my may have used but as of now, I haven't found it but Jean, I'm going to continue looking for it. It's now driving me nuts. LOL See ya my friend.

    Cruisin Paul

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    1. You were like my brother. He genuinely liked hanging around in the kitchen when Mom was cooking. Now days, a person either loves cooking as a hobby/passion or they don't. I love that we have a choice.

      Let me know if you find any "baby spiders" in your spice rack.

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    2. By the way Jean, yesterday my wife & I went a saw
      " Book Club " We both loved it especially with the part with the husband had the viagra. See ya.

      Cruisin Paul

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    3. Good, glad you both liked it.

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  7. i love Tapioca--not the kind they serve in restaurants, but the kind in the red box that we cook ourselves AND I always add more vanilla than it calls for and sprinkle sugar on top of each little dish, while it cools.
    As for "baby spiders", I can't think of a spice that looks like that. It wasn't Thyme was it. We usually put Thyme in our homemade soups.
    I never spent much time in the kitchen with Mom. I was always out in the barn or climbing a tree somewhere. When I got married, I didn't even know how to use a can opener to open up the can od Dinty Moore stew for our first supper.
    We had no TV, so while my hubs was at work, I studied the Betty Crocker cook book and learned and became a really good cook. I had children to feed and HAD to learn. LOL

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    1. I've never had tapioca with sugar on top but it sounds great. Tapioca in restaurants is a wast of calories. I can't imagine anyone liking it.

      I can't believe I've finally met a person in my age bracket who knew less than I did about cooking after leaving our teens. LOL

      I just looked at pictures of Thyme and that wasn't it. But my mom did use it a lot.

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  8. Good luck getting a Real Recipe from any successful home cook. I am the same way: recipes are a guide only. And it's rare that I make the same thing the same way twice. It often depends upon what I have in the pantry or fridge, what I'm trying to use up, what looks good to me, what looked good at the market, etc.

    "Intuitive Cooking", I think it's called.

    As to your interpretation of 'living high on the hog'--I'm astonished. I know this idiom has been around since the 19th century and referred to the upper classes being able to afford the upper cuts of meat, whilst the lower classes took the poorer cuts like trotters and knuckles. I've never seen/heard it being used with regard to actual livestock practice. Off to Google!

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    1. You're right about good cooks. They know how to cook anything any way and how to use spices and herbs to bring out whatever they want. Comes from practice and the love of ingredients, I think. Intuitive cooking is a good description.

      If you come up with "living high on the hog" that was in print from an earlier time frame, let me know. I could find references to lower classes of people eating the lower cuts but nothing to prove it was in print before 1920. Also found stuff about how Roosevelt (?) made it popular in the '40s...can't remember which president and I only read it a few days ago!

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  9. Hi Jean,
    I was gonna say star anise but I see others beat me to it. Maybe judiciously cut dill weed? Could look spidery.

    My mom didn't follow recipes either - or just as a starting point and then she ad-libbed from there. And guess what, that is exactly how I cook now!

    I remember asking her for her Dutch pancake recipe when I was a young adult. She said: I start by mixing equal parts milk and flour, add some vanilla and sugar and an egg (or two) and a pinch of salt, and when it smells right and is the right consistency I stop adding stuff and start frying the batter. I kid you not! (But that's how I make them too now - LOL!)

    Thanks for this post,

    Deb

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    1. Dill weed only smaller is exactly how I remember it looking but who puts dill in meats, stews and soups?

      I wonder if the kids growing up now will have great memories of cooking with their moms. So many families don't even eat together anymore, let alone cook together. I'll have to try your mom's pancakes someday.

      Thanks for stopping by with a common, Deb and all the others up above and who might come below.

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  10. Cute post Jean. I'm anxious to hear what the "baby spiders" are.

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    1. Wouldn't it be great if after all these years my blog readers solved the mystery for me.

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  11. It wouldn’t be humble peppercorns, would it?

    I am not good at measuring when I am cooking even though I remember the home ec classes that taught level teaspoons and cups. My mother was really precise with her measuring but my grandmother was a little of this and a pinch of that kind of cook.
    Regards,
    Leze

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    1. I don't think they even teach home-ec classes in schools anymore but then they didn't have a cooking channel on TV either. So anyone who wants to learn, can. From what I gather, measuring accurately matters mostly when baking. More science to that.

      Not peppercorn, I'm sure.

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  12. Replies
    1. I need to go to the spice store someday and ask an expert. Now I'm starting to wonder if it was a dried coriander or thyme that was just chopped differently than it's sold today. The star anise looks the closest to what I remember but I would have to try to soak it in water to see if it remains 'woody' or the points would wiggle. My mom used cloves with ham. Thanks for guessing!

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  13. I'm not sure about the spice but was Asian food in vogue then? I know now you can buy that seaweed (nori) that unlike the flat kind you use to roll sushi, it's flakes and you put them in sauces or soups. They don't dissolve). I suppose it could have been something like dried parsley flakes too -- or dried rosemary -- that doesn't absorb water content.

    I loved this piece, though. It reminded me of times in the kitchen with my mom. She cooked that way and so do I. OK, I'll use recipes for something new or special and for baking (although I might mess with add-ins) but then I start to fiddle. I do use the cookbooks I have too -- some of them -- but it seems like there's always a variation. Drives my recipe-OCD friend nuts because everything she does is precise. I gave up precise when I stopped balancing my checkbook in 1993.

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    1. My mom never cooked anything oriental. It was basic meat, veggies and potatoes or Italian. She did use a lot of parsley and rosemary. My husband didn't like anything made with tomato sauce so half the dishes I knew and liked to make were off the table when we met. He didn't like chicken either so there went the other half of my cooking skills.

      Seems like there are two kinds of cooks...the OCD and the creative, adventurers.

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  14. Mmmm ... now I'm hungry!

    My Mom was a great cook ... and loved trying new things ... Chinese, fish and chips, and a million kinds of yummy casseroles (6 kids to feed on a tiny budget). Once or twice a month we'd have oatmeal for dinner and she made it seem FESTIVE!

    I've given up cooking for the boys ... they prefer pasta, pizza, macaroni and cheese, hot dogs, hamburgers, sloppy joes, spaghetti. I'm now the salad sous chef. Kate and I have BIG salads with a little of what they are having. Or I cook for the three adults and boys have their basics as leftovers. I have been trying to make soup once a week and freeze leftovers in small containers so Kate can take to lunch. I make granola every other week. Jesse loves it and I put a bit on yogurt.

    I eat much better living here with the crowd than I did on my own! Thank goodness!!

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    1. You gave me an unintentional laugh. I kept reading "Jesus loves it"---your granola. Just about the time I thought you must mean the grain diet based on the Bible it finally got through to me that you wrote, Jesse, not Jesus.

      I think we all eat better when we share a meal with someone.

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  15. Dear jean, I so enjoyed this posting as it explained an expression to me that I'v used many times throughout my life and it also brought back to me my own attempts to emulate my mom in her cooking. Like your mom, she never measured, she just "knew" what a soup or a pudding or a casserole needed.

    I've tried repeatedly to get the same taste to my potato salad that she managed but even there I can't quite find the secret!

    I bet you're a fine cook. Maybe like me--you like a recipe. but I wonder if you don't also, like your mom and mine, throw in some extras into that recipe!

    Like you, I love to back bread and yet I haven't done it in nine years. I hope that respite ends this coming winter. Peace.

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    1. Dee, I fully plan to start baking bread again next winter.

      The things I do make turn out good but I don't often go outside of my comfort zone. I had a lot of years between my early twenties and late sixties where I literally only cooked on Sundays so I just don't have the same years of kitchen experience as most women my age.

      Isn't it amazing the things we find in common with other bloggers, even though our lives are so different on the surface? Thanks for sharing Dee.

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  16. Could it have been dill? That kind of looks like spider legs. What color were these baby spiders? This is going to drive me nuts!

    If you can find it, try Jell-O tapioca (powdered pudding in the box). Not enough tapioca, but the flavor is wonderful.

    My mother was a binge cooker. We would eat mac and cheese for two weeks, then chocolate eclairs (my favorite), then pork chops and baked potatoes until she got sick of cooking each one. Kind of bizarre and I never cooked with her, but I got very interested in cooking in my twenties. Not so much anymore, but the skills are there when I do decide to put something together. Soup is my fave, and it gets all the food groups covered.

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    1. Dried dill is a good possibility. At first I didn't think so because I didn't think it was something that would be used in soups, but Google says otherwise. It was brown in color.

      I just bought a box of real Tapioca and I plan to make some this weekend. I've had jell-O boxed tapioca and it just isn't the same.

      A binge cooker---that actually describes me!

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  17. Interesting remembrance of cooking and your Mom. Never gave much thought to expression high on the hog other than in context of maybe living expensively. Piglets on the bottom would have the weight of the ones on top weighing down on them. Recall seeing a New Hampshire sow birthing her litter. She trusted Pop to get into the pen with her. It was a freezing night, so as each was born he dried them off with a towel, then put them down to a teat as Mom and I watched outside the stall. Problem was she birthed one more piglet than she had teats so the runt needed help to even get any milk.

    Other than Home Ec class my only cooking was occasionally baking a cake or cookies, but watched Mom prepare other foods. Plucked and dressed many chickens, but didn’t really learn much cooking until I wed many years later. Sometimes I enjoyed cooking, other times it was a real chore. I modified some recipes as time went on, but mostly followed written directions.

    Hope you learn the mystery spice.

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    1. I wish I still had the link to why piglets fare better on the top. It was interesting. Glad it bought back some good memories for you. I would have hated cleaning chickens. Did it once and said never again. Lo!

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