Mom-a-dukes: The Cook

Sunday, October 09, 2005

I’m in Orlando today and tomorrow – just story, no blurb.

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I subscribe to the clichéd ideology that the most important job in the world is being a mother (followed by father, teacher and then my cleaning lady since this place would look like a sty if it wasn’t for her). They have to be so many things, a nurturer, a judge, a teacher. Over the next week I’m going to be talking about my mother and convey to you had she excelled in all of her responsibilities. Today I’ll start with My Mom: The Cook, not because I believe a woman’s primary job is cooking but because it’s a funny way to start the week.

But it doesn’t hurt that a woman’s primary job is cooking. Anyway…

My mom wasn’t the best cook in the world. She had her signature meals that would have people coming over just to get some (like her Chicken Rollatini) but for the most part we were a poor family with access to the basic ingredients. What we didn’t have in terms of flavor and variety she made up for in excitement – every meal had a story.

Take Macaroni Junga-Junga, for instance. Probably my favorite meal to this day, it is shell pasta, tomato sauce and chopped meat, covered in cheese and baked. Sort of home made Hamburger Helper except the shells would burn just enough to give the bottom of the casserole dish a little bit of crisp. Whereas it was a simple meal with cheap ingredients capable of providing two nights of dinner and one day of lunch for a family of four, my mom always sold it as an old family recipe. Handed down from our family in Napoli, several generations back, straight down to our little apartment on Woodhull Street. As an adult I realize that Macaroni Junga-Junga was no more a family tradition from Italy than Spam & Eggs but as a kid, it made the meal special.

Same goes for Frankfurter Soup. According to my mom, Frankfurter Soup was a traditional Irish meal that her mother used to always make. It was basically frankfurters and onions cooked in a spiced up tomato broth but as a kid it was more than just delicious – it was my heritage. Frankfurter Soup was my mother fucking roots. My great-great-great-grandmother used to bring home a package of Sabrett hotdogs, slice them lengthwise into quarters, drop them into a boiling pot of Cambell’s tomato soup, add some onions and spices and let it simmer.

Old Irish recipe or not Frankfurter Soup was a staple in my house and we all loved it (especially with mashed potatoes). When I’m home and my mom asks me if I want something “special” for dinner I request Frankfurter Soup, the meal that costs five-bucks to make, and the whole family gets excited.

St. Patrick’s day, however, wasn’t as fun. Whereas the corned beef was fine the cabbage was gag-inducing and my mom insisted we cleaned out plates for “luck”. That was one tradition I wasn’t happy to follow. It would be soggy and noxious. I’d douse it in ketchup to drown out the flavor (I used to douse everything in ketchup; I think the excessive use of ketchup is an actual Rodriguez family gene).

My mom’s sauce was fantastic, however. Even now when I eat it I can’t help but think she should bottle it up and sell it. It’s an all day ordeal for her, making sauce. She would start it early in the morning and it’ll be ready in time for dinner. If we were lucky she’d throw some sausages from Esposito’s in the pot, nice plump ones.

She also had a knack for Mozzarella sticks. No idea what it was but when she prepared a batch we ate them like it was nobody’s business. She’d make fifty at a time and freeze them and they’d be gone within a few days.

Her biggest cooking talent was Spanish food. My Grandma (father’s mother) taught her. She makes the second best rice in the family now (my Grandma makes the best) and the third best pernil (pork shoulder - Tio Mario making the best, Grandma in close second). But she can also hold her own in all of the other standards and recently perfected her pasteles (pork and plantain based meal, wrapped in banana leaves) recipe which has always been a Grandma stronghold. No-one else even attempts to make pasteles in our family.

My mom would stink up the whole house with her Spanish food, our upstairs neighbors would complain about the sofrito smell that permeated the entire building but they stopped complaining when we brought them up a plate of pernil and a little bit of chicharron (the ultra seasoned, hardened pig skin – our family always fought over who got to eat the chicharron).

Turns out my mom also fries her foods a lot more than the average family. I learned to cook from her and everything I made (except for my rice) was fried. Robin corrected me about a month into our relationship, after I served her fried green beans and Portobello mushrooms. I’ve since learn how to bake and grill and broil and boil. But I still can’t make a good pot of rice to save my life. It comes with age, I’m told. Both my age and the age of the rice pot I’m using. The one my mom uses has been her rice pot for the past 30 years.

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