Life & Style
Memories of Mom’s Kitchen
Abby Miner grew up on a farm and has fond memories of freshly baked bread slathered with hot, foamy strawberry jam. (Photo courtesy of Abby Miner )
Kitty Flynn of Madison was known for her great cooking, her enthusiasm in the kitchen, and always making room at the table for whoever might drop in, her daughter says. (Photo courtesy of Catherine Flynn Donovan )
Mary Collins, Colleen Shaddox’s mom, worked hard as a waitress all day and then came home to cook dinner for her family. (Photo courtesy of Colleen Shaddox )
Abby Miner’s mom, shown here with her family, never minded if the kids helped out in the kitchen, even though that usually meant a big mess when it was all over. (Photo courtesy of Abby Miner )
Pem McNerney’s grandmother Mary, left, and her mom Patricia, on the right, left memories of great meals and handwritten recipes, too. (Photo by Pem McNerney/The Source | Buy This Photo)
Kitty Flynn, when making meals for her large family, always made sure to make enough to feed any last minute guests. And there was always room at the table, says her daughter. (Photo courtesy of Catherine Flynn Donovan )
Growing up, I was lucky enough to have three meals a day. They just showed up.
Breakfast when we got up. Lunch, all bagged up and ready to go during the school year. And dinner, often with all of us around the dinner table. Usually meals drew my attention only when there was something I did not like. I would have something to say if my favorite breakfast cereal was not available (what!), if it was Twinkies (again?!) in my lunchbag, or if there was spinach (ugh...) on my plate at dinner.
Now, I’m home and on many days cooking breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and cleaning up after breakfast, lunch, and dinner. That has once again made me remember my mom, and her mom before that, with gratitude and all the work they did that made a house a home, including their cooking. And that sent me back to my mom’s collection of recipes, one of my most treasured possessions.
What I love best about these recipes, shopping lists, and notes is that they are in her handwriting, or in the handwriting of friends who sent them to her in the mail. Some of the recipes are pretty fancy, including one called Fettuccine Ferrari.
The food I loved most was pretty simple, including a one-pot dish she made from pasta, hamburger, cottage cheese, and canned tomatoes. It wasn’t a recipe and it didn’t have a name. We called it dinner. One of my favorite desserts was a store-made angel food cake, with a slather of store-bought lemon curd, with blueberries scattered around it.
Going through those old recipes, as Mother’s Day approaches this year on Sunday, May 10, I wondered about what others remembered about their moms’ kitchens, so I asked. Some of the stories were of mothers who were wonderful cooks, others remember moms who worked hard outside the home but struggled in the kitchen, some moms managed both with some degree of skill. What they all had in common is that, as they were making breakfast, lunch, and dinner, they were also making memories.
Catherine Flynn Donovan, who lives in Madison across town from her mom, Kitty Flynn, says her mom was and still is a good cook. “Although the messiest cook I know, she was always serving delicious dinners. In our house there was always a drop-in, too. You never knew how many people she would be feeding. She did it with grace and poise. For years, my mother constantly had a dish towel over her shoulder like a pashmina,” Donovan says. “Clean-up was always something though!”
Colleen Shaddox, who lives in East Haddam and grew up in New Haven, says her mom Mary Collins enjoyed cooking and that just about every meal was home-cooked, even though her mother worked all day as a waitress and “was the hardest-working human ever,” Shaddox says. “She was not a terribly good cook. It was the ‘70s. Everything was drowned in Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom. But she was a fabulous baker. I think of her whenever I get a whiff of cinnamon.”
Abby Miner, who lives in Essex and is the owner of the waterfront restaurant Abby’s Place in Essex, grew up on an old family farm in Waterford. Her mom, Louisa, loved to cook and followed recipes for baking and preserving, but made meals from what was available in the kitchen. Miner says her restaurant menu is inspired by her mom’s influence, who still lives on the farm. “There were huge gardens, fruit trees, all types of berries, and a big pond” on the farm while they were growing up. “One summer day, when I was around six, my brother and I ran up to the house after a swim. As soon as I opened the door I smelled the aroma of bread. Mom was taking loaves out of the oven,” Miner says. “There was a pot of strawberry jam on the stove with a huge pink puffy pillow on top.” Her mom cut thick slices of the warm bread, then slathered on the pink froth. “I will always remember that delicious taste sensation and mom at the stove. She was, and still is, a wonderful cook. She always let me help knowing there would be a mess at the end.”
Charles Hedge of Deep River says his mom Helen took a decidedly casual approach toward meal planning when he was growing up in New London. “My mother would just wing it. Sometimes it would work, sometimes not. But we had to eat it anyway!” One of his favorites was stuffed cabbage, a dish she taught him to cook and that he still makes at least once a year. He says there isn’t really a written down recipe, but that he makes it from memory.
Emily Eisenlohr, who used to live in Madison and has since moved to North Carolina, was one of 11 kids growing up. Her parents were poor but loving, and worked together to raise all the kids, often pulling from the garden and the fruit trees where they lived. Meals were Midwestern nice and often a hot dish. “The meat, starch, vegetable threesome. Meats and vegetables were well-cooked, unlike fancy cuisine of today.” She says mac and cheese was considered a meal, as was tuna casserole. Her mom was a great baker, too, and known for her pies, and putting up her fresh fruit and jellies.
Joan Walker of Madison says her mom was a multi-tasker when it came to cooking and that, while sometimes the chicken and vegetables were overcooked, her mom is remembered for her mealtime successes. “She would cook and talk on the phone at the same time. Her casseroles were amazing and her desserts were delicious. She was famous for her strawberry pie and potato salad. She made homemade pasta sauce each week. It would make at least two dinners. Every dinner in our house would have a salad.”
Hedy Watrous, who grew up in Westbrook and now lives in Deep River, says her mom inspired her to cook. “My mom was not a good cook. In fact, quite bad. This is why I learned how to cook.” That proved to be fortuitous as Watrous later went on to open her own restaurant, the Whistle Stop Café in Deep River, from which she has since retired. “I cook at home now,” she says.
Val DeMayo DaCosta of Clinton had a mom who wasn’t great in the kitchen, but, to her credit, she also worked outside the home, as one of the first women police officers in New Haven. “On the occasions that she made dinner, it had to be something that you could use Shake and Bake with,” she says. “To this day, she still calls me with cooking questions.”
Laurie Baker Noble of Madison also was not a huge fan of her mom’s cooking. “Truth be told, my mother’s cooking was the worst! From seeing her cut her fingers to her inedible meals, it took me until young adulthood to begin my journey of learning to cook.” Noble did receive some guidance from her grandmother, who, she says, was “impeccable when it came to cooking...with just a little of this and a little of that, nothing measured.”
Kim Castaldo of Madison says her mom was truly a gourmet cook, especially after her mom’s four kids grew up and moved out. “She had time to focus on cooking. Most of her day focused on what she could create to please my dad. She got ideas from recipes, but always doctored them up with her own ingredients. I can still hear my dad telling anyone who would listen, ‘I am the luckiest guy ever, I get a gourmet dinner every night!’” Castaldo says she inherited her mom’s love of cooking, and loves to take recipes and add her own flair.
Kathy Mannix DeBurra of Madison says her mom could make an amazing gourmet meal of whatever was at hand. And holidays brought with them a veritable parade of food, typical of many Italian households. Once one of her sons asked a girl to Thanksgiving and when the manicotti came out, she said her family usually served turkey. Her son promptly said, “Oh, it’s coming.” DeBurra says she treasures the memories and the recipes her mom passed on to her, orally not written, before she passed away. “There weren’t recipes. She just knew what worked.”
Denise Harvey of Madison, who owns and runs the Madison Coffee House and the Guilford Coffee House with her husband, says her parents got divorced when she was four years old. She grew up with her dad, her Aunt Shirley, and her grandmother, who was small at 4’ 11” but mighty when it came to all things cooking. “They taught me everything I know. Both my grandmother and my Aunt Shirley made sure I knew all the family traditions and recipes. From our weekly Italian Sunday dinners that could feed an army, the seven fishes dinner on Christmas eve, meat pies (pizzagaina) at Easter, and the most important, the family anginette cookies. I loved cooking and baking as a child and am so happy I can pass those traditions and recipes to my children.”
Matt Herz, who used to live in Guilford and now lives in New York, says he still treasures his mom’s cooking. “She never measures anything. Her ability to just add ingredients is amazing. The recipe is never the same way, which always makes it interesting. She also has an ability to time things correctly so that everything hits the table at the same time. I never measure either. It’s about feel and trial and error. I have learned to cook because my mom encouraged it. I am lucky to have such a wonderful skill, and mother.”
Karen Isaacs of East Haven says she remembers her mom coming home from work as a 5th grade teacher and, in between her grading, fixing dinner, “including dessert. I remember pies. She made her own crust. Bread pudding. Tapioca. And full meals of meat, potato, and vegetables. She was a good cook. Most was from experience.”
Deb Heinrich of Guilford says her mom’s hatred of cooking didn’t stop her from doing it every day. “She hated it so much that she never taught me to cook,” Heinrich says. “I had to learn it on my own, still learning, but I love to cook.”