I have a curious memory from when I was very small. My brother Alan and I are sitting at the kitchen bar at our house and are staring at the bowls sitting in front of us. Inside the bowls is a curious green liquid that my mother tells us is leek soup. The leeks, grown in our backyard garden, were something not commonly grown in the foothills of North East Tennessee, at least not in the mid-60′s, but somehow my mother had found some seeds and grown them for the purpose of bringing just a little bit more of her French culture to us. The color of the soup was just odd enough that I was not quite sure that it was actually edible. I would have preferred a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, but soup was what was on the menu. My mother urged us to eat, telling us how delicious leek soup was, demonstrating the deliciousness of the concoction by eating from her bowl placed on her side of the bar as she stood in our small kitchen.
My mother was originally from France and had come to the US with the company she had been working for. Within a year she had met my father and nine months later I was born. One of my brothers followed 15 months later. She threw herself into trying to be the best wife and mother she could for us. She also tried to educate us in French culture, even though we were firmly on American soil. She taught my brother and me French until my Dad complained that he couldn’t understand what his own children were saying. Another one of the ways she tried to instill French culture was through food. I don’t remember too many foods that she actually served us other then the leek soup and the Quiche Lorraine that she made almost every weekend, but according to my father, she often introduced things to the evening meal that were new and exotic, especially to my Dad, who was born and bred in Jacksonville, Florida.
He tells of the time that she served him mussels, and snails. To this day he is not quite certain where she found those French delicacies in a small southern town hours from the nearest ocean or edible snail habitat. Somehow she did so that she could introduce my dad to something she happened to be fond of. My dad, being willing to try anything once, ate what was served him, but never requested a repeat of shellfish cuisine. Shellfish and rabbit stew were about the only things that my father mentions that he didn’t like about her cooking. Once, while at work, my father noticed a group of secretaries staring at him. It was something that he had noticed off and on for several weeks. His ego and his curiosity getting the better of him, he asked the women why they kept staring at him during lunch.
“Oh we’re not staring at you.” one of them replied. “We were staring at your lunch and were wondering if we could tackle you so we could steal it.”
Smiling at my dad, she added, “Every day you bring the most wonderful looking lunches.” My dad, his ego slightly deflated as he realized that he was not the source of the secretaries’ admiration, explained that his wife made lunch for him every day, and thanked the women for the compliments to the cook.
My mother was also an organic cook, long before it became in vogue here in the U.S. My parents grew their own vegetables, and my dad made his own compost for fertilizing the vegetables. They got eggs and unpasteurized milk from a local farmer, from which my mother would make butter and a soft cheese from the cream and the whey she skimmed off the milk. She also made all our bread, nutty, brown and absolutely delicious. The only time I had store bought bread was when I found myself at someone else’s house. I didn’t really like the store bought bread. I found the flavor and texture far inferior then the sliced goodness my mother produced on a weekly basis.
I am not exactly sure why she went through all the trouble she did to prepare our food herself, or make most of her own clothes as well as mine and my two brothers, but she did. Maybe it was because of her own childhood, growing up in occupied France during World War II. She lived in a time of hardship and uncertainty during the occupation, made worse by the German soldiers keeping people from moving about freely as well as the Allied bombing of nearby factories and rail lines in hopes of keeping those facilities out of German hands. Her family, like most of the families in her town, often ate their suppers in bomb shelters while airplanes dropped munitions from several thousand feet above them. Even in the years following the end of the war, things must have been difficult while communities began to rebuild what had been lost because of the war. It is quite possible that skills learned by my mother ended up serving her well when she moved to the states and a completely different culture.