The Sacred Canon
by Betsy DiJulio
My 82-year old mother is a woman of principle. Of the rules she lives by, some are legitimate interpretations of what are—or at least were—fairly widely accepted rules of etiquette. (Just because you can send a note of thanks via email or text doesn’t mean you should, though you damn well better send something.) But others can only be described as belonging to her own personal code.
Many of Mama’s ideas about food fall into the latter category, elevating them as she does to the realm of moral principle, and applying her culinary dogma with increasingly vocal, albeit well-intentioned, self-righteousness. A talented, generous, and curious—but not particularly self-confident cook (though she is adventurous, as long as I am there to goad, which I have been only too happy to do over the years)—Mother does not believe that there is virtue in endless variations and adaptations of classic dishes. Such tinkering with tradition is not well-intended gilding of the lily, but pure folly: culinary Tom Foolery bordering on bastardization of the sacred canon. Personal preference long ago assumed a moral dimension in my mother’s world.
Take, for instance, gumbo. Gumbo is seafood gumbo. Period. Put your chicken in a casserole and stick your sausage wherever you please. And for goodness sake, don’t add beans or kale. Yet, even within the briny and sacred realm of seafood gumbos, never has there been one that quite lives up to Mama’s Platonic ideal of gumbo; one that, I have come to believe, simmers away only in her mind: a Holy Grail among many, from bouillabaisse to Sazeracs.
Gumbo Ya Ya
A lifelong Southerner, Mama takes her seafood—and her vegetables—seriously. Shrimp are most assuredly not done just because they turn pink, and al dente vegetables have a ways to go before being properly cooked. The rest of the culinary world has it wrong. Neither Michelin Stars nor Food Network star status gives one authority in such matters.
But she is also right, if broadly outnumbered, on other points.
In the 1980s, when chain restaurants started passing off fish thickly coated with “blackened seasoning” as Cajun legend Paul Prudhomme’s blackened redfish—fillets dipped in butter, seasoned, and seared in a screaming hot skillet, “blackening” as milk solids browned and spices charred—self-righteous indignation is the only way to describe my mother’s response. To confuse a refined cooking technique hailing from the gastronomic capitol of the South with the heavy-handed dousing of a hapless fish with a commercial spice blend is culinary heresy, pure and simple.
Ditto the interchangeability of the term “spicy” with “hot.” More than one waiter has endured a mildly contemptuous, if brief, lecture about why heavily spiced food does not and should not imply heat and vice versa. Common usage? Pshaw.
And any apparent embrace of the breaking of tradition is just that: apparent. For years—until last Thanksgiving when I deemed the yearly trip from Mississippi to Virginia too arduous for her and my father—she enthusiastically embraced my husband’s and my hosting of our annual “Thematic Thanksgiving” for both of our families in which all of the traditional ingredients were interpreted through another culinary lens: Cajun, American Diner, Italian, Thai, and more.
It was years before I discovered that Mother slyly returned home to prepare an old-fashioned Thanksgiving repast of turkey, dressing, green bean casserole and all the rest of it for my father and sister. I felt duped, though I had to laugh. It was a bit like learning—again, years hence—that, when we were dating, my husband would tuck into my thoughtfully and passionately prepared vegetarian meals, having surreptitiously stopped at KFC, downing a covert 3-piece dinner en route to my apartment.
In fairness, holidays tend to bring out nostalgic tendencies in most of us. Though, for me, favorite childhood foods are, while savored in their purest form, ripe for adaptation. Not so for my mother. Christmas means a relish tray of, and only of, both black and green olives—from a can and a jar respectively—celery stuffed with pimento cheese—from a carton—artichoke hearts—from a can—stuffed with softened Philadelphia brand cream cheese, and trimmed radishes and green onions, all served on a scuffed “avocado” green lazy Susan, c. 1960s.
Christmas also perennially includes a large plastic tub of “Texas Trash” or “Chex Mix,” for those living outside the Lone Star State (to which she referred as “home” decades into our residence in Mississippi). Proper Texas Trash does not include bagel chips, Goldfish crackers, nor any of the rest of the superfluous ingredients added post 1950s.
Having suffered a stroke in her late 70s and no longer confident driving, Mama has gradually relinquished more and more of the shopping to my 86-year old father. This past Christmas, asserting that he “doesn’t listen to me for s---”—never mind that neither of them can hear thunder—Mother pronounced the batch of Texas Trash “ruined” upon discovering that he had mistakenly purchased Frosted Mini Wheats instead of Wheat Chex. My comparison of the resulting salty-sweet notes to kettle corn was of no consolation. I will never convince her that Worcestershire Sauce and sugar have any business in the same pan.
Somewhere between my near-manic pursuit of endless riff upon riff of recipe after recipe—an outlet for my admittedly restless and impatient imagination—and my dear mother’s benign disdain for anything she considers an affront to the classics is a more temperate and balanced “culinary point of view.” But, oh, how boring. How unimaginably bland. In matters such as these—sources of both endearment and frustration—I have come to believe that, like everything else in life, achieving perfect equilibrium is an overrated ideal. Though the journey may be an admirable and even worthwhile exercise in self-discovery, let us hope that we never arrive.
I have also come to understand that, like everyone else, Mama’s and my beliefs about food are steeped in our larger worldviews, and that what we both seek is ultimately the same: fierce, wooden spoon-wielding truth. But, whereas my mother believes it will be found by sifting out the enduring and unchanging from a cauldron of flux; I believe the opposite: that it will be found swirling within the ever-changing against a backdrop of the permanent and constant.
|Betsy DiJulio DiJulio is a food blogger, cookbook author, freelance writer, artist, and high school art teacher who pines for her mama and her mama’s cooking from Virginia Beach, VA. Visit her blog at www.thebloomingplatter.com.|