Over My Shoulder: Food: Universal Language

by Ann Robson

Food brings us together around a table where we exchange ideas, discuss whatever is on someone’s mind. We’re also making memories and enjoying the food, which usually has a special story.

I remember helping my mother make what we called “tea biscuits” used for strawberry shortcake. Imagine my
surprise when I was served ham and biscuits in Kentucky
and discovered they were basically the same biscuits,
different use.

A Kentucky friend told of cooking a large country ham. She always cut a large hunk off the shank. When asked why she did that, she said her mother had cooked ham that way. So we asked her to ask her mother “why?” Turns out her mother did it to make the ham fit her pan, not for any superior cooking. From that disclosure, I began to wonder how many things we do a certain way because our mothers did it that way. I have no scientific proof, but my guess is that most of us start out with what our mothers have done for years. Gradually as we acquire new gadgets, get a few cookbooks, watch cooking shows, we begin to put our own mark on our cooking.

There’s nothing like a few disasters to make you change your method. I cannot make a decent pie crust. I worked very hard as a young bride trying to make a pie because our parents were coming for dinner. Everything else went well but I couldn’t get the pie. I remember throwing a fistful of dough at a cabinet door and declaring “Never again!” And I have not even tried since. My rationale is that if God wanted me to bake pies, He wouldn’t have invented bakeries.

A friend in Detroit gave me a recipe for tortellini soup. I first made it, tripling the recipe, one March break when my brother, twin nephews and a friend were coming to see us. It’s a hearty soup that makes a meal along with a salad and some crusty bread. They devoured it. Tripling the recipe was necessary. It’s one of those standbys we all have that we make for certain reasons. I usually make it when people are traveling to see us. It has now become an expected dish when family comes.

One of my nephews and his bride gathered favorite family recipes for a booklet they gave everyone at their wedding. The tortellini soup was in it with a comment from my nephew that he made the soup for his roommates at university and they gave him a standing ovation. At their wedding one of his friends asked me if I was Aunt Ann of the tortellini soup. When I said yes he told me he was impressed. Soup I can do. Pies I can’t.

Over the years we have entertained business visitors from several countries. Since we were usually in semi-rural areas, places to take them for dinner were limited. So Chez Robson was born. My standard fare was a grilled steak, which seemed to be a favorite. I served acorn squash to an English man and he barely touched it — squash is considered cattle food. We served a full blown Thanksgiving meal to some Germans who rarely eat turkey but there were few leftovers. We did hamburgers for some Brazilians who quickly began to play soccer with our daughter and neighbors in our side yard. On a cold, dreary night we ate pizza around the fireplace with a young Japanese gentleman who had been traveling for a couple of weeks and was delighted to sit around the fire and be part of a family for an evening. In every case, food was the reason for being together but the fellowship that developed was priceless.

Our food culture has changed. We used to go out to eat just for special occasions. Then we’d eat out if we came home from work and were tired and we’d go to a favorite spot where they served good food quickly. Then we retired and found that cooking for two wasn’t much fun so we began to eat out on a regular basis.  

Home cooking is becoming a lost art. I hope we can manage to keep it as part of the joy of being together and savoring good food and equally good company. 

Ann Robson is the author of “Over My Shoulder: Tales of Life and Death and Everything In Between.” She can be reached at overmyshoulder@charter.net .