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Mountain Home Magazine

Memories Are Made of...Vegetables

by Cornelius O'Donnell

The bitter cold winter weather kept me indoors and gave me the opportunity to catch up with reading something other than cookbooks and mystery novels. The Wall Street Journal ran an article a bit ago on the topic of picky eaters and getting them to consume at least most of the good-for-you food you place before them. As Jennifer Traig, the author of the piece said: “Getting kids to eat what they should is one of the biggest fights that modern parents face.” It’s been a long time since I, as the eldest of four and mom’s little helper, placed the small piece of chicken or green bean or whatever on a spoon and made believe it was a choo-choo heading into a little tyke’s tunnel, a.k.a. mouth. Ah, memories of tying on those bibs!

As I remember, the somewhat too exuberant sound effects of that puffing train would have put anyone off their eating mettle. Well, the kids survived, and order returned to the breakfast nook.

I then digress back to my days as a preteen and teenaged eater. My mother, having an Irish heritage plus a husband who asked no more than meat-and-potato fare, usually featured a potato dish with most meals. So often this was in the form of a mash. My close-in-age brother number two thus creatively solved the problem of downing the vegetables we most assuredly did not enjoy. We simply smashed the green bean or Brussels sprout or spinach into the liberally buttered mashed potatoes. (No, I don’t remember the ratio.)

Turning Carrots into Karats

My dad was most assuredly not a fan of our subterfuge. “Stop playing with your food,” he’d bark, and we’d cut back a bit on the obviousness of our mixing. To get all of us to eat those orange slices of carrots, mom sprinkled them with some brown sugar, and we’d gobble them us. She was a real pre-Mary Poppins. Corn, usually purchased in season from farm stands, was a no-brainer. We loved eating the ears and even frozen or, more likely back then, canned. It all went down like a treat. Did you ever make bets with your sibs as to how many ears you could eat in a sitting? Brother Robert and I did.

Among the Missing

Things I don’t remember having regularly—if at all—include zucchini, called Italian squash back then, or squash of any kind, except for pumpkin, which always came in a can at our place. Cauliflower was another vegetable we’d do anything to avoid, so Mom made it with buttery crumbs on top or disguised it by ladling on a cheesy cream sauce. That made it OK. Mom loved beets; us kids didn’t. She’d de-can them and those rosy-red slices plus cottage cheese made her lunch. (She was about a size eight.)

I never saw a sugar snap pea or even a pea pod until I was in my thirties. Hot pepper seasoning (think Tabasco) never appeared. Yes, we had a pepper mill that we took turns using. Maybe that’s why I treasure such mills today. Fresh herbs were absent, but somehow Parmesan was on the table Friday evenings when we had spaghetti, sauced from the cellar’s hoard. There was a grinder—a round one with a metal loop on top into which you slipped your hand. Somehow, I think it was imported, despite the war.

Those Friday evening spaghetti feasts were much looked forward to. No meat in the sauce or meatballs, of course. It was Friday in a Catholic home and the fish came from a take-away place. I remember being shocked one Friday when there, on the menu board for the school cafeteria, was what I thought was “rabbit.” Turned out to be “rarebit.” That’s a cheese dish and probably served on those Fridays to clergy.

To us, that orange mash served on Thanksgiving was known as turnip. Never saw the white variety until I was past my teens. Salads, other than egg and tuna, were reserved for my mother who had a victory garden out back during the war. We did put lettuce on sandwiches, of course, and we loved Arnold’s thin “Brick-Oven” bread.

Does any of this sound familiar?

I wonder if we would love vegetables more if we helped grow them. I love reading about the kids in San Francisco who tend plots in the San Francisco school yards. Brilliant! And I know my interest in food was sparked by helping cook meals. Surely kids can learn to measure out ingredients that they help find in the refrigerator or cupboard. I did.

My best friend, who often dined with us, had a mantra that he’d repeat—endlessly: “There are two things I can’t stand, parsnips and margarine.” He needn’t worry, as my mom never used either.

We Called It Tomato

One fruit/vegetable we all rooted for was that red stuff. A bottle of catsup/ketchup was often on the table. For years I’d even put it on my morning scrambled eggs. And my mother made all sorts of things when the tomato harvest came in. She’d convert those bushels into the chili sauce I still crave today, or the jarred tomatoes she’d make that lined the shelves in our basement.

I do want to leave you with a recipe, and here’s one that uses the tomatoes you preserved last August or the wonderful canned versions like San Marzano or the fire-roasted variety. I got this recipe years ago from Marion Cunningham who was the editor of the newer Fanny Farmer books.

Marion’s Walnut Creek Chicken

You will have lots of tomato sauce left over and it is perfect to ladle over pork chops or meat loaf. This is probably the easiest recipe I’ve ever cooked. To make it even easier, lightly smack the cloves to remove the skin, then grate the cloves with a microplane right into the pan. I’ve made this with chicken thighs and was delighted.

  • 1 quart canned or homemade tomato sauce
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 medium onion, minced (pre-chopped is OK)
  • Few grinds of the pepper mill
  • Salt
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 tsp. dried oregano (or more to taste), crumbled
  • 1⁄2 tsp. dried cumin
  • 3⁄4 c. raisins
  • 1 Tbsp. vegetable, olive, or corn oil
  • 1 Tbsp. red wine vinegar
  • 3 to 4 pounds chicken, cut up

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Combine all the ingredients except the chicken in a 3-quart Dutch oven or lidded casserole. Stir to blend and then add the chicken pieces. Spoon the sauce over it. Bake for 11⁄2 hours.

Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Go Online

There are many sources of ideas out there on the Internet for feeding young’uns. One I liked was “30 Kid-Friendly Dinners” that you’ll find by going to My Now I’m going to make some meatballs that were denied to me in my youth. However, I have to find the ice-cream scoop necessary to shape those orbs just so.

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