My mom, Gail Lee Martin, served hearty farm fare, like fried chicken and mashed potatoes, to keep eight people well fed. Every meal featured potatoes in some form; either mashed, fried, scalloped, baked or in the spring, creamed new peas and potatoes. Vegetables tended to be green beans, peas, and corn. We didn’t adventure into exotic things like asparagus or broccoli. She learned much of her cooking from her mother and also from between the black covers of the Searchlight cookbook.
Putting food on the table was pretty labor intensive. It started with planting, hoeing, weeding, watering and harvesting. From there it progressed to canning and freezing. For meat, we raised the chickens, rabbits, and beef that filled our plates. Preparing a chicken dinner started with catching the hen, cutting off its head, dipping it in boiling water and pulling out all the feathers. Then she cleaned out the interior and cut it into pieces to cook.
Feeding eight people was a daily chore, even when her daughters were old enough to fetch the canned green beans from the root cellar and to peel the potatoes or churn the butter. To further complicate her workload, Dad worked shift work. That meant reheating everything to feed him when he came home late from his oil field job. There was no microwave to speed the cooking or hasten the thawing in the 1950s.
Television advertising in 1954 showed an innovative, time-saver… the TV dinner. The meat, vegetable, and dessert filled a compartmented aluminum tray. Covered in foil, it went straight from the freezer to the oven. It seemed like the perfect solution to late evening meals for Dad. Mom loved the concept and bought some right away to try them on Dad.
Unfortunately, these prepared meals seemed pricey and didn’t always have the foods my dad liked. Mom saved the metal trays and started making her own TV dinners. For regular meals, she fixed just a little extra each time. She used the leftovers to fill the compartmented TV dinner trays. Covered with aluminum foil, these stacked compactly in our large freezer.
Now when Dad arrived home from his late shift, a hot meal was soon on the table. To supplement the TV dinner, she opened a jar of homemade applesauce, put out a stack of white bread with home-churned butter, and poured a tall glass of milk from our cow.
Her next discovery was ethnic food. She found a package of eight enchiladas in the grocery frozen foods section (probably next to the TV dinners). Our meals were typical midwestern meat-and-potatoes fare, all cooked from scratch. This was a big step introducing the family to store-bought, foreign food.
She served two trays of the beef enchiladas. That allowed two per person. To round out the meal, she fixed a big batch of mashed potatoes with a golden lump of homemade butter melting on the top. Opening and heating several Kerr jars of home-canned green beans took care of the vegetables. The family loved the spicy new food.
A plate stacked with slices of Rainbow bread passed around the table. Anyone who was still hungry could spread it with butter or sop up the enchilada sauce with it. There were plenty of refills of milk from our jersey cow. No one left the table hungry.
When I lived in South Texas, my Hispanic friends laughed with me when I told them of my first experience with Mexican food. The concept of green beans and mashed potatoes with enchiladas seemed odd to them. I love all types of Mexican food now and even made my own enchiladas from scratch. Thanks, Mom, for taking that first adventurous step in culinary diversity.
(Originally posted on Our Echo by Virginia Allain)