I could not be an American aristocrat at the turn of the twentieth century. That’s 1900 for those of you like me who get confused by such an archaic reference to time. While the money was good in the circles of aristocracy (they paid no income tax), the beds were small and the houses were huge. Those in the gilded age ate dinner around 8:00 p.m., had parties to the wee hours of the morning, changed clothes six to seven times per day (to keep up with the other aristocrats in the neighborhood), and ate a lot of French cuisine. Servants drew the bath for those of privilege. None of the aforementioned is inviting to me.
I grew up on the opposite side of aristocracy. In a different time, with a different set of societal mores and a considerably different cuisine is where I found myself. My bed was plenty big. The wee hours of the morning was reserved for waking up, feeding the chickens and stealing the morning’s eggs out from under the ol’ hen’s backside. Changing clothes was once a day except Sunday – you had to change out of your church clothes before moving into the playing part of the day. Hands were always clean for dinner, but clothes got changed only at the evening bath – usually drawn by mom who sat on the side of the tub with a coffee can that doubled as a shower head to help speed up the process. Modesty did not serve you well.
Back to the cuisine – my favorite part. My dad was an early riser and started most days by throwing something (actually most everything) into a pot on the stove. The small house I grew up in quickly smelled of the morning concoction. Alarm clocks weren’t needed. The emanating aromas of the meals of later that day usually stirred one out of bed. By meals, I mean meals – breakfast, lunch and supper may have been represented in that one pot. That was OK. They were usually substantial and delicious. I was never hungry and, to this day, very grateful for what we had.
Sauerkraut and something was a popular dish. We had sauerkraut and ham hocks, sauerkraut and pork chops, and sauerkraut and pig knuckles. Never do I remember sauerkraut and steak. Chili was great. So was vegetable soup. Navy beans were a treat. Throw in some ham, and well, it didn’t get much better than that. Little Irish red potatoes were good. And beef stew – you can’t forget beef stew. A family favorite was something called “stuff on a shingle.” (“Stuff” is a replacement word for something else not usually discussed in my mother’s presence). Yes, hamburger in milk gravy over toast was as good as it got. I swear we ate the meals of kings until, years later, I found out what that meant.
It’s what we make of life that matters most. It’s not the money or the clothes or the parties. It’s the family that surrounded the events. It’s the friends and the fun that shapes our memories. It’s the security of a loving home, whatever the square feet. It’s counting on each other and never being disappointed.
To this day, one-pot meals are my favorite. The closest I get to French cuisine is French bread to sop up the juice from my favorite stew.