My mother was not known for her cooking. She wasn’t a bad cook, she just approached it as she did her housekeeping—a duty for which she had no calling. One of her signature dishes was beans and meatballs.
My mother’s recipe for Beans and Meatballs
Soak a package of dried pinto beans for however long
Add the right amount of water, then turn up the heat ‘til the water boils
(Make sure you use a pot big enough for this)
You might want to turn the heat down to medium highish or so at this point
(Make sure you cover the pot)
Add salt and pepper to a pound of hamburger meat
Turn it into meatballs (whatever size you want)
Add the meatballs to the pot of beans
(Before the beans are done cooking)
Slather margarine on a piece of white bread
(Use Wonder bread if you can afford it)
Place the margarined bread on a plate and cover it with the beans and meatballs when the meat is cooked through.
Note: do not use butter. Butter tastes too rich.
(To emphasize what you mean by this, stick out your tongue as if to
show the coating of butter that lingers there, and say, “Bleah.”)
I can’t begin to tell you how satisfying this dish was on a cold, rainy night as we sat in front of the TV watching Captain Satellite.
My father was actually a better cook than was my mother. He would take over the duties when a strike or work drought left him at home while my mother worked. We would have hamburgers with walnuts mixed into the meat because—well because the walnuts were there and he thought it was an interesting idea. It was.
My mother’s mother had recipes galore. When she was in her nineties, living in a senior apartment (living by herself for the first time in her life), she boasted, “The manager says I keep my house better than most.”
But my mother—not so much. She had a wooden trivet emblazoned with the statement:
My house is clean enough to be healthy and dirty enough to be happy.”
It hung on our kitchen wall. I don’t think it ever got used as a trivet.
My mother didn’t have a career so much as she had jobs outside the home—pink collar jobs that she hoped would catapult her into the world of power she imagined men had because they got to spend their days outside the home.
Those pink-collar jobs did not land her there because the power she imagined the men had—well, they didn’t really have it either.
I think what she was looking for was an expression of self. The workplace was not set up for that for either men or women. But men did have a patriarchal power—women couldn’t get credit in their own name, for example, no matter whether they brought home a paycheck.
My grandmother never worked outside the home. Everyone thought that was just fine with her. The oldest of nine, she was matriarch to her siblings and their children. Family was everything to her I always heard.
When she turned 90, I recorded her life story. “I really wanted to be a telegrapher,” she told me. “But there were nine of us at home so I thought it was time I got out to the farm and set up house with John.” She was 18.
And so, with a vengeance, setting up house became her life’s work.
I think that was a recipe my grandmother gave to my mother—a recipe of sacrificing one’s selfhood for marriage, as if the choice were one or the other.
Because the recipe had been handed down to her, my mother advised me in my late teens that I should not know myself too well, or I would never be able to mold myself enough to marry someone.
Anyone who knew my mother is surprised when I tell this part of her story. She seemed so much her own person. And, she was. But somewhere, buried inside her, encoded on her DNA, was the belief that women had to sacrifice themselves if they wanted home and family—they had to disappear their heart’s and soul’s desires.
That was the heart of my conflict with my mother. She wanted more for her self, she admired me for striving for more for my self, but it scared her when I began to respond to my heart’s and soul’s desires.
I began to feel entitled to my self.
It was a not a recipe the family had ever tried before.
It was a conflict that reared its head just before she died; we did not resolve it. After seven years, there are moments I mourn that she did not, could not, give me her blessing before she left.
I think that might be the way it is between mother and daughter: we need her to bless the recipe we choose to follow.
The other dish my mother made that I loved was her Thanksgiving special—a dish I came to associate with Thanksgiving. I called it the Pink Stuff because it was pink and tasted pink—not airhead pink like cotton candy—but luscious pink-rose pink. It included cherry Jell-O, cream cheese, pecans, and cranberries. I think that’s all the ingredients. But I don’t know for sure and I don’t know the portions and I don’t have a clue how to put it together.
I don’t know where the recipe for the Pink Stuff is. It got lost somewhere when we cleaned out her house.
So the Pink Stuff will have to remain her unique dish, one I cannot duplicate. I miss it. It is the empty place at the table that once was hers.
I did create my own recipe for beans and meatballs. My mother tried it and liked it. She said I had a way of taking a recipe and making it my own.
My recipe for beans and meatballs
Sauté one small onion (chopped finely) with a handful of pine nuts
Combine ½ pound of ground beef with ½ pound of ground pork
Add a cup of ricotta cheese to the meat
Mix in the sautéed onion and pine nuts
Add some finely chopped fresh rosemary
Let sit if you want for an hour or overnight, but you don’t have to
Form the meatballs (keep them on the small side)
Brown the meatballs on all sides until golden brown
Remove meatballs from the pan
Put an 8-ounce can of chopped tomatoes into the pan (open the can and empty the contents)
Add a cup of red wine
Raise to a boil then turn to medium high
Add the meatballs and cook until they are well done
Heat a can of white beans (any kind you like–again, open the can and empty the contents)
To the beans add garlic
Toast some dried thyme
When the beans are done, drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with the toasted thyme
Place the meatballs and beans in separate serving dishes on the table
(I place the meatballs on the trivet that says, “My house is clean enough to be healthy and dirty enough to be happy”)
and let your guests do with them as they may
Note: I think I gave you all the ingredients and methods. If not, improvise!