Chow Town

August 6, 2013

Mom might not be best cook, but there’s always a childhood favorite dish

I’m going to be up-front about this: my mom was not a good cook.

Chow Town

The daily dish on Kansas City's food and drink scene

I’m going to be up-front about this: my mom was not

a good cook.

A single mom teaching school every day providing for her family does not exactly lend itself to hours in the kitchen whipping up culinary masterpieces.

I actually came to this foodie thing rather late in life. I was still boiling hot dogs after the late news in my apartment when I met my wife, a really good cook, and started dining out more and dining in better.

Heck, I never even had legitimate barbecue — sorry Carson’s — until I got here to Kansas City. By that time, I was already 30 years old.

Still, that doesn’t mean I don’t have some pretty vivid childhood food memories — some good, some bad, some just weird.

I believe everyone has one favorite dish from their childhood that, while often times not particularly good, and sometimes downright awful, sticks in your mind, like my grandmother’s pineapple upside down cake in her cast iron skillet.

For my wife, it’s hamburgers her mom would cook until rock hard and serve in a tomato sauce over rice. She loved it, and still regards it fondly.

But, when she replicated it for me, well, let’s just say I was underwhelmed.

My favorite is no better. In fact, I’m pretty sure it’s worse. My mom used to serve up a tuna casserole, and not just any tuna casserole, but one with a potato chip crust.

Take that hamburger girl!

Seriously, to this day I can’t have a tuna melt with chips without drifting back to my mother’s tuna casserole.

Most of the other food-related memories of my youth, at least where my mother is concerned, revolve around various Swanson TV dinners: chicken, Salisbury steak, roast beef …. I recall being much more interested in the dessert that occupied the center tray on the back row than the protein du jour.

I do, however, credit my mother with fostering my love of lamb. I don’t know why or where she got them, but my mother would cook up a boneless lamb roast about every other week.

I don’t remember it being a leg of lamb, but it was definitely boneless, and she always cooked it to medium rare — always my favorite temperature.

To this day, I would rather order a rack of lamb in a steak house than a filet, strip, or ribeye.

The other fond food thoughts of my youth center on my maternal grandmother’s house. I would have enjoyed meeting and eating with my paternal grandmother, an Orthodox Jew, but unfortunately my parents had split by the time of my first birthday and I never had the chance to meet her.

It’s not that my mom’s mom was Betty Crocker or anything, more like Betty Crockerski as a second generation Polish immigrant.

Still, she had the time as well as the inclination and, as a result, she was a pretty good cook. I specifically remember lots of pasta in a plain meat sauce. She favored thick noodles that we used to call “sewer pipes.”

There was also polenta which my grandmother fried up in that darned cast iron skilled seemingly every day. If you can’t tell, my grandfather was Italian, so it was his cuisine she cooked, not hers.

I never even saw a pierogi until I was an adult. The pasta I loved, but the polenta? Well, let me tell ya, I was no fan when it got all popular in the 80s in those trendy restaurants.

Polenta with morels? Polenta with lemon zest? Polenta with a beef or red wine jus? No thanks. Can I have mashed potatoes instead?

My grandmother also baked-nothing from scratch, mind you, but there was usually a cake hanging around the kitchen.

Sometimes, when I was really little, I would mistake my grandfather’s stinky Italian cheese with its brown wax covering as a chocolate cake. But I only made that mistake once — okay, twice.

No, most times, I got my cake right, and so did my grandmother. And, when the pineapple upside down cake didn’t stick in the cast iron skilled, and came out all perfect and caramelized, oh my. Now that’s a childhood — memory to savor.

Dave Eckert is the producer and host of “Culinary Travels With Dave Eckert,” which aired on PBS-TV and Wealth TV for 12 seasons, or nearly 300 half-hour episodes produced on six continents. Eckert is also an avid wine collector and aficionado, having amassed a personal wine cellar of some 2,000 bottles.

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