She was a good cook. She cooked with what she had on hand, quickly and easily, turning out a meal for 9, often with some help from one or another daughter. My mother often made scalloped potatoes – sometimes with ham; sometimes without. Just potatoes, butter, cream, a little onion, salt and pepper. Maybe a little flour to thicken it. Usually no cheese. She just tossed it together – slice the potatoes, slice the onion, put it in a casserole, add the butter, the flour, the seasonings, the cream, and bake it. One, two, three, done. No recipe, no instruction, just mouthwatering goodness; crusty and golden on top except where the cream had bubbled up; yielding slices of potato, an occasional ring of onion, just enough salt and pepper, maybe some dill. Steamy and burn-your-mouth hot if you ate it too quick. I enjoyed it all my childhood and didn’t give it a second thought; like the sun rising and setting, it was part of my landscape.
Then she died; she died of heart disease and diabetes and cancer and loneliness; the four horsemen of old age. I didn’t try to make scalloped potatoes immediately; I didn’t think about it. But someone asked me how to make them, and I told them how my mother made them. But I didn’t have any measurements – it was just take some russets, some butter, some cream ….and layer it. So I tried to make it myself to get the proportions. I made scalloped potatoes and ham; scalloped potatoes and roast pork chops; scalloped potatoes and roast beef. It was ok; sometimes it was even good; but it wasn’t my mother’s scalloped potatoes. It just wasn’t right. I asked my sisters but no one had a recipe that was really good. One sister said, “open up the box from the supermarket…”. I finally gave up; I complained that I couldn’t make them like Mommy made them.
One day, we went to dinner at the nice restaurant in the hotel at the end of Wolf Road, and they had a special of tenderloin and scalloped potatoes. I ordered it. I took one bite and put my fork down on my plate. “These are my mother’s potatoes!”. I couldn’t believe it – they were perfect! “Well, what’s the secret?” asked Jeff. “Butter,” I said, “LOTS of butter”. “Now you can make them!,” he said. “No,” I said, “I won’t make them. Too much butter.”
My mother had lots of secrets. How to feed everyone when there’s not enough money and you’re worried the power will be turned off. How to survive when you’re husband has died and you are left with two minor children at age 54 in a foreign country. A great deal of grief and darkness. How to reinvent yourself as a school teacher and earn a living to provide for your old age. Like scalloped potatoes, she didn’t share the recipe. I’ve learned some of her skills, and generally I know how to make do; I try to hold my chin up and keep my backbone straight. But she also knew that everything was better with more butter; she was right but I can’t bring myself to do it yet.