Everybody has a story: Mom’s method foiled many a good meal



OK, full disclosure: My mother, bless her soul, was a terrible cook. She married young, lived with her mother during World War II and was busy giving birth to two children. So, after the war, when our young family moved out West and added another child, she apparently took too few cookbooks with her.

The aluminum industry was searching for ways to use all that excess production capacity, so some genius in the industry came up with the idea that everything could be made better by wrapping it in aluminum foil and throwing it into the oven. And that’s what Ma did: she wrapped roasts, chicken, vegetables, desserts and, of course, potatoes.

To be fair, she didn’t have much to work with. We lived in an isolated Wyoming mountain community, where food was fresh if the can showed an expiration date within the last year. At 7,500 feet above sea level, the growing season was so short that only small carrots, dandelions and radishes were possible.

Plus, we were poor. How poor were we? Ma bought the cut of red meat that was closest to the hoof. The only part of the chicken we could afford was the neck; I was eight before I realized chickens and snakes weren’t the same critter. That was the year we bought some baby chicks, and they grew up with that desperate look in their fowl eyes: produce eggs or end up on the table that night.

Food improved in my teens, when we moved to a small town in Illinois that was surrounded by farms. I bought a gun and shot lots of rabbits, ducks, quail and pheasants. In addition, we had a garden full of good veggies. But Mom, bless her soul, still overcooked everything, and aluminum foil was her best friend.

It wasn’t until I went off to college, and then later the Army, that I tasted charbroiled steaks, rare beef, al dente vegetables and pasta, Jello-free salads and desserts. I even thought the Army’s “stuff” on a shingle tasted good. And later, when I discovered properly cooked seafood and not-in-a-can oysters, my stomach and eyes woke up to the concept of good food.

It helped that I married well: Biscuit followed her mother’s lead and expanded our joint food horizons. In our first year of marriage, I learned that, to prevent clusters of shortbreads from floating on the ceiling like fluffy clouds, they must be eaten right out of the oven. As a bonus, Biscuit perfected the art of pie (I defy anyone to make a better crust) and started winning prestigious cooking contests.

Early on, one memorable night, we discovered rare prime rib and Beefeater martinis are a combination made in heaven. (Cut to scene of surf splashing on shore).

One memorable Christmas, Biscuit’s mother extracted a lifelong promise (“Never, ever let Biscuit use soap to wash them”) and then gave me her collection of black cast-iron cookware. So it was no surprise that I started cooking as well. Oh sure, at first it was the manly throwing of raw meat and shrimp on the barbecue. I probably peaked with a suckling pig, then started looking for other ways to show off. Plus, if I wanted lamb and oysters, which Biscuit doesn’t like, I had to cook them myself. I learned how and when to use the South’s “blessed trinity,” mirepoix — the French version — and how to marinate, use good wines, and so on. Nowadays, Biscuit and I split the cooking duties fairly evenly.

I think history shows that my generation (just prior to baby boomers) was the first to have husbands cook regularly in the kitchen. Now, of course, it’s common; my sons-in-law regularly cook genuinely gourmet meals and we vie with each other to wow the family crowd.

But none of us use aluminum foil.

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