This guest post was written by Wayne Roberts. Wayne is a food policy analyst and writer, widely respected for his role as the manager of the Toronto Food Policy Council from 2000-2010. You can read Wayne’s writing in Now Magazine, and on his blog. Wayne’s reminiscences on his mom Dorothy are part of the Apron Strings series, helping shine a light on our foremother’s food traditions. Visit the Apron Strings page to see other posts and the videos.
My Mom and Dad came of age in Toronto during the “Dirty Thirties,” but even by the standards of that era, they had more than their share of bad breaks. Mom was given up for adoption as a baby, lost her adoptive mom at 14, and was rescued from the streets by a warm and generous family, the Farmers. Dad’s father had a problem with booze, so my dad quit school to support his family at 14.
When they married – Dave and Dorothy, and soon their two kids, Dale and (I got lucky and wasn’t called Dwayne) Wayne — they were bound and determined to give their children all the love and happiness they missed out on. I thank them every day for the joy they gave, but on Mother’s Day, my memories turn to mealtimes my mom orchestrated, and the good cheer and fun times we all had eating together.
I grew up in the heyday of Modern times in the 1950s. My mom was a thoroughly Modern woman, extremely progressive politically and socially, but very mainstream culturally.
The whole family went shopping at the supermarket on Thursday night, and our family bought exactly what people who wanted to eat fairly healthy were supposed to buy: brown bread, not much pop, lots of fruits and vegetables, most of which — with the exception of potatoes, carrots, iceberg lettuce and tomatoes — came in cans and boxes.
I and all my friends thought my mom was a fantastic cook. But she mainly cooked with processed foods, and with no equipment other than a stove, fridge, breadbox, pots and a chopping knife.
Sunday was the family meal, cooked from scratch and eaten in the dining room. Dad carved the roast beef, and Mom served the baked potatoes smothered in gravy alongside green beans and sliced carrots. Then we watched the Ed Sullivan show. Dad, very progressive for the times, did the dishes.
The rest of the week we ate processed food in the kitchen.
Mom timed dinner to be ready at 6:00, just as my dad got home from work. The concept of inviting people over for 7:00, expecting them to arrive at 7:30,and having dinner ready by 8:30, always bewildered them when it came to be my turn to serve family meals to them.
We ate seven different dinners a week, in a cycle that went: pork chops with potatoes; macaroni and cheese; roast beef sandwich (left over from Sunday); shepherd’s pie (on Thursday, to get rid of leftovers before shopping); fish and chips (Friday, of course, the only take-out meal of the week); spaghetti and meat sauce; back to Sunday and roast beef. And then the food cycle began again.
Pre-dinner salad was served with a Kraft dressing. Dessert was usually canned fruit, often served in jello. The spice rack was at the centre of the table – a salt and pepper shaker, sprayed generously before even tasting a bite.
I didn’t find out about garlic until I went to university and got invited to Sunday dinner by my girlfriend, whose family came from Rumania. My mom complained that it made me stink. I didn’t find out about yoghurt until I went to California for graduate school, and didn’t discover bagels until I returned home and lived downtown.
But all the time I grew up, I never knew anyone ate differently, never thought anyone could eat better, and never thought anyone could have more fun at dinner, talking about the day, making weird noises, or playing a practical joke on someone.
My mom’s all-purpose recipe: add smiles and cheer, and be secure that everyone at the table will think life doesn’t get any better. It takes a kitchen to raise a child.
Some people wonder why my book, The No-Nonsense Guide to World Food, is so critical, but so warm, about the Modern food system that emerged after World War 11. If you knew my mom, you would understand why.