I was going to bring something to the office for the holidays the other day. I pulled out my mother's baking sheets and thought, but only for a moment, that I should make a couple dozen chocolate chip cookies, straight from the recipe on the bag of chocolate chips, just as my mother did every year at Christmas.
I didn't. You can't serve your nostalgia that way. Only in memory. I remember that when I was a boy, my mother was the best cook in the neighborhood.
Lots of sons remember their mother's cooking as being the best. But my mother's cooking really was the best in my neighborhood. In the 1950s, I lived among families who had known the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, who had gone through wartime rationing, among housewives who knew food only as the opposite of going hungry, among husbands in their early 30s who insisted on eating poorly because they had been poor most of their lives. On the tract house plains of South Gate, Downey, north Long Beach and Bellflower, meals reflected what you still stubbornly held on to. And if you ate to remember, many of the memories were of loss.
In my working-class suburb -- "Tomorrow's City Today" -- the future of food hadn't arrived yet. Shopping was mostly done on foot and often, since most housewives either couldn't drive or didn't have a car. The Helms Bakery truck came by with its smoothly sliding, glossy wood drawers. And so did a guy who had converted a former transit bus with shelves and a propane cooler to bring cigarettes, milk and breakfast cereal to the car-less. People in the neighborhood who had a bigger lot kept a few chickens and sold the eggs.
The Boys Market at the distant end of my block had long aisles of packaged and canned goods, but the fresh vegetable counters still followed the seasons. Heads of iceberg lettuce -- the only kind available -- dwindled in winter. Corn on the cob arrived only in July. Butcher cuts of local beef weren't very good, and the Farmer John company pitched its pork products as "easternmost in quality, westernmost in flavor." There were times you couldn't get chicken, but you could get rabbit. Fresh fish was hard to find. Cardinal McIntyre in the weekly Catholic Tidings recommended "tunies" (tuna hot dogs) for Lenten Fridays. Some grocery stores showcased an aisle of frozen food, but the Coldspot refrigerator at home had room in its freezer compartment for only two or three rectangular blocks of peas.
A special alchemy
As a percentage of average family income, food in the 1950s was expensive. But on a $100-a-week paycheck you could still feed a family. The results were hardly memorable if all you knew was Wonder Bread and margarine, a roast cooked dark and hard, watery string beans, plenty of mashed potatoes and Jell-O for dessert. My mother began with the same roast, the same potatoes, but the beef turned out savory, the side dishes were respectable, and there was always a salad (served, California-style, at the beginning, which initially puzzled my New York-born parents).
My family's food habits were unfamiliar in other ways, an inheritance that marked my family. My parents went through a martini-before-dinner phase when my sophisticated uncle lived with us. They drank red wine with the spaghetti and meat sauce my mother always made on Saturdays (to be served as leftovers on Mondays, always tasting even better). We ate at 7 p.m. or later, though everyone else in the neighborhood ate dinner at 5:30 p.m. My brother, my parents and I always ate dinner together. Dinner was always served with two vegetables. And breakfast was always two USDA Grade AA eggs fried over easy in butter and served with two strips of overcooked bacon on the side, toast and more butter as my mother prepared her sons for school and heart disease.
My mother cooked plain food like this, almost untouched by the recipes in the women's magazines she read or even those in the copy of Irma Rombauer's "The Joy of Cooking" she kept in the cabinet over the refrigerator. She preferred a baked potato to Rice-A-Roni, anything simple to anything that technologized either the food or the experience of eating.
My mother cooked the same seven or eight meals in weekly rotation for decades, punctuated by the obligatory dinners for Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter, when we used her wedding silverware. It became rote cooking -- measured out in cans of Hunt's tomato paste, packs of Birds Eye frozen Brussels sprouts and pounds of stew meat -- but my mother treated the ingredients with enough respect that they always seemed more than just nourishment. When my brothers' friends and mine were invited to dinner -- and tasted medium-rare roast beef for the first time -- they always fell in love with my mother over dinner. Extraordinary how potent Lawry's Seasoned Salt was. It was as if my family and the families on my block ate on two different continents, the width of a dinner table apart.
We hardly noticed then, but all around us California was extravagantly giving. Backyards in my neighborhood delivered, with casual overabundance, apricots, plums, peaches, pomegranates, nectarines, tangelos, guavas and tangerines. Only so much could be picked, eaten or shared. Softball-sized peaches fell from the tree in my yard. The winey smell of fallen fruit would, some days in summer, be overwhelming. Those untended trees, with so much fruit, were all of California -- all of what California could mean -- to the refugees from colder, harder places who now lived here. All that wasted fruit was a sign that one hunger at least could be assuaged.
The era of 'modern'
We were fed in the 1950s, but many of us were not sustained very well, with scraps of half-remembered information from a high school home ec course and what the black-and-white commercials told us we could do with Cheez Whiz. Part of it was the exile of wives in the newly made suburbs, so far from mothers and grandmothers. Most of all it was "being modern," which meant using the post-war generation of processed and prepared food items that made a meal experimental.
My family ate out, too, and it seems to me that we might have eaten out more often than some of my neighbors. We ate at local places, at Hody's Family Restaurant in Lakewood Center -- caramel and tangerine stucco on the outside and walnut veneer and red vinyl in the half-dark interior. It was one of many proto-Googie restaurants designed by Wayne McAllister. Hody's also was an incomplete transition from short-order diner to a dinner restaurant. Hody's still had counter service and carhops on roller skates. It was not exactly middle class.
I remember best the dried sea horses and starfish entombed in the plastic dividers that separated the booths and the horrific clown face mask that was the menu for kids. I have almost no memory of the food, except for the intense tomato redness of the salad dressing Hody's served. It was astringent and too sweet, like our lives then.
And if we didn't dine at Hody's, we might have gone to Clifton's Cafeteria at the mall or Manno's Italian Restaurant on South Street or the Clock Coffee Shop on Lakewood Boulevard or Sam's Seafood on Pacific Coast Highway in Sunset Beach.
I ordered lobster Thermidor once at Sam's, too young to know what I was getting into. When I didn't like its rich, rank stink of cheese and cream, my mother ordered me something else, despite the cost of another dinner, and said nothing of it. A meal, even for a foolish kid, was meant to satisfy. My mother gave me many gifts when I was growing up; this one I'll always remember. It sustains me still.
D. J. Waldie is a contributing editor for the Los Angeles Times. His most recent book is "California Romantica." He blogs at www.kcet.org/local.