There are a oodles of foods that are bring back strong memories of my childhood. Until I was in high school I'm quite sure that I had never eaten a biscuit that was born out of a can, a pie crust that had ever encountered a freezer, a cake that had been conjured from a cardboard box or an entree that didn't have some kind of fresh, frozen or canned vegetables that hailed from our garden.
I never knew that there was such a thing as a white egg that came from a chicken's behind. All of ours laid brown, speckled eggs that we gathered while they were still warm and washed very carefully in the sink before hiding them away in the 'fridge for breakfast the next morning. (Except for that one time Dad put the fresh eggs in his coat pocket, forgot they were there and went into town for breakfast. He went to pay his bill, reached for his wallet and you can guess the rest of that story.)
My mother was one of the best cooks I knew. She got me in the kitchen when I was still so small I had to stand on a chair. I loved it then. And I still can't get enough of making magic with food for people I love.
There was only one thing that I remember that my mother cooked that I thought other people did better. And not just a little bit better either.
In my yet to be developed gastronomical opinion, my mother made second-rate chili. It was bland. And it had spaghetti in it. And those two things made it beyond redemption.
For the most part I was a very compliant kid. I happily did what I was told without much complaining. But when it came to my mother's chili I just couldn't hold myself back.
I know it hurt her feelings but I compared it mercilessly to the best chili I had ever eaten – the weekly offering at my elementary school. Those 1970's cafeteria ladies knew how to rock the chili soup! And, it was always served with a peanut butter sandwich. And oyster crackers. In my nine year old, not so humble (or quiet) opinion that was the best food combination. Ever.
At home, as soon as I knew that the pot simmering on the stove was chili I started in on how much better the chili at school was. How it didn't have spaghetti in it and how it tasted like heaven on a spoon. My mother started out ignoring me but nine year olds don't have a lot of common sense.
No. You may not have a peanut butter sandwich with it.
Yes. I'm going to put spaghetti in it.
No. We don't have any oyster crackers. Saltines will have to suffice.
No. It's not any spicier than the last time I made it.
No. I will not call Great Crossing Elementary School and ask for the cafeteria ladies recipe.
Yes. You have to eat it.
Eventually my father would enter into the conversation and I knew not to mess too much with him. I ate my mother's chili. But it didn't stop me from trying to plot a way to spend a morning in that cafeteria with those ladies – watching and learning. And creating heaven on a spoon for myself.
I made a pot of chili earlier this week. I like it more than my mom's but nothing comes close to how I remember that steaming bowl of chili tasted in the old cafeteria in the basement of my elementary school. Most of the time the cafeteria smelled like a cross between an old mop and sour milk, but once a week, to me, it smelled like heaven.