How One Mom Learned to Cook

November 9, 2011

in Interviews

By Riki Shore

When I was growing up, I had several friends whose houses were like second homes to me. Their back doors were always open and we kids could play at these houses any afternoon after school. The mothers in these houses were like alternate mothers. They would watch out for us, keep us in line, drive us home if needed, and, most especially, feed us.

Mrs. Egan

Mrs. Egan, circa 1973

One of these mothers was Mrs. Egan, who worked full-time and still came home and cooked a meal from scratch for her husband, four children, and whatever stragglers were still there from an afternoon of play.

I remember delicious smells wafting up from the kitchen as she chopped and sauteed, a vodka gimlet on the counter next to her, and music from her husband’s enormous record collection playing in the background. It was a warm, noisy and welcoming place to be.

I still keep in touch with her daughters and I recently had the chance to catch up with her and ask her about her cooking and ongoing interest in preparing food for her large family. What she has to say is fascinating for women my age, since our own day-to-day realities are so different from what she describes.

Hopefully she’ll inspire you to get out the linen and china, sharpen your knives, and get cooking. Just think what meaningful memories (not to mention good nutrition) you’ll be creating for your children.

TS: I understand you learned to cook as a child. How old were you when first started cooking and how did you learn?

MRS.E: I was very young when I first helped my mother with meals, probably about six. My mother always had what she called a “truck patch,” a vegetable garden that she grew every year. I recently looked up the term and it refers to vegetables from a garden that would be driven by truck to customers. She would tell me to go out to the garden and pick string beans, tomatoes, peppers or whatever was growing at the time. Talk about fresh farm-to-table cooking.

TS: What were some typical meals that you made when you first started cooking? Who ate these meals?

MRS. E: The summer I turned 12, my mother started working at my father’s paper company. Being the seventh of eight children, my older brothers and sisters were either married or working, so I looked after my little brother and took care of the household chores. One of my first meals (and vivid memories) was making chicken cutlets with fresh breadcrumbs and mashed potatoes with creamed corn and string beans. My family raved about it, so I got the bug for cooking.

TS: Once you became a working mother did you still cook most meals at home? If yes, why did you make that choice?

MRS. E: Yes, I always cooked dinner except for Fridays when we had pizza. On Saturday night I always did a “gourmet meal” for my husband. That was the original date night, I guess. We had four children so dining out was not always an option. I did it because I liked having dinner with my family and I grew up on fresh delicious food.

TS: Do you think it’s harder for working mothers today to put a healthy meal on the table than it was when your kids were young? Why?

MRS. E: Yes, children have so many more events today. I know my grandchildren go to swimming, soccer, karate and so many other things that it’s very difficult to find the time to cook every night. Also, there is so much more travel involved in careers then when I was working.

TS: What principles guided your cooking? Were you sticking to a strict budget, or trying to pack in lots of nutrition, or mostly concerned with style (making recipes inspired by magazines or cookbooks)?

MRS. E: What a good question!  I never thought of cooking in those terms.  I never stuck to a budget and I was mostly concerned about fresh foods (I shopped mostly every day). I guess looking back on it, I liked the challenge of working in a demanding career atmosphere, but finding peace and calm when I came home and cooked. I loved reading food magazines and trying new recipes. I have every Saveur magazine from the first issue.

TS: Which people have most influenced your cooking during your lifetime?

MRS. E: My mother, of course. She was an amazing cook. She made every thing from scratch and she made sure we all had breakfast. Even cooking for all of us she made whatever we wanted. Pancakes? Sure thing. She’d get out the flour, eggs, etc. Eggs?  Fried, scrambled, poached? No problem. We lived in the country and when we went to school we were the first ones picked up in the morning and the last to be dropped off at night. In the winter it would be dark by the time we got home. I will never forget getting off the bus and smelling her dinner even outside. She would make the best roast pork or her beef pie (with crusts on the bottom and top all the better to soak up those juices) that was the size of a serving tray (I had five brothers), homemade strudels, and roasted chicken with her amazing stuffing. I also learned a lot about presentation from my mother-in-law. She always set a beautiful table with crystal and china. She was the best audience I ever had for trying new recipes. She had a very discerning palate and was always the life of the party.

TS: What advice would you give someone who wants to learn to cook healthy, tasty meals at home? What’s the best way to get started?

MRS. E: Find a magazine or cookbook you identify with for your family’s taste and style and start with easy recipes. Try more involved ones when you have the time. Fresh is best, but not exclusive to tasty, healthy meals. I try to not buy processed foods or ones with too much salt.

TS: Do you have a favorite recipe to share?

MRS. E: One of my favorites for Thanksgiving is Cope’s Baked Corn Supreme.

1 7.5-ounce bag John Cope’s toasted dried sweet corn
5 cups cold milk
3 1/2 tbsps. butter
2 tsps. salt
3 tbsps. sugar
4 well-beaten eggs

1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Butter a 2 quart casserole dish.
2. Grind the Cope’s corn in a blender or food processor.
3. Mix all the ingredients thoroughly, and pour them into the prepared casserole dish.
4. Bake for 60 minutes, until set. Let cool 10 minutes before serving.

Share your food memories with us:

Do you have memories of the people who cooked for you when you were growing up? Leave us a comment. We’d love to hear about the people behind your favorite meals.

{ 5 comments }

Sarah at Letters from the Kitchen November 9, 2011 at 6:08 am

I love this post. What a beautiful interview! I somehow relate best to that old-fashioned cooking style, a few different pots and pans going on the stove, music playing, and a glass of something – that vodka gimlet detail was just perfect. I strive to be one of those women who puts a whole meal on the table every night but remain in awe of women like Mrs. Egan. Wonderful photo, too!

Jill Perretta November 9, 2011 at 6:40 pm

I have been lucky enough to eat Ronnie Egan’s cooking since 1975. Hers were the first stuffed mushrooms and and stuffed cherry tomatoes I ever tasted. I wonder if she knew when I volunteered to help her at her and Dave’s parties that I was looking for an excuse to pick the cracklings from the ham cooking pan. In my recipe book there is only one recipe for ham, listed as Ronnie’s Ham. Ronnie has always been a most generous and gracious hostess taking everything in stride and making it work.
Ronnie’s skill as a cook and hostess is exceeded only by her capacity to be a dear friend.

danielle November 9, 2011 at 8:25 pm

what a wonderful post!!! feel good post!! personal…
unfortunately i did not like my mothers cooking. So i have gone most of my life eating just to stay alive. But recently my husband has taken flight with all the chef celebrity business and started collecting all the tools a kitchen needs. Now i cook. Turns out Im better than i thought and I can use my creative energy to make something that is close enough to edible:)
but i am most definately a beginner with a thirst for inspiration and education.

M. Egan November 9, 2011 at 11:22 pm

I am lucky enough to have this lovely lady for my Mother-in-law. Every morsel of food I’ve tasted from her table has been outstanding. I scour cookbooks and food magazines and can never even hope to be even a fraction of the cook she is. She made roast pork that she placed over lima beans and the limas absorbed the juices from the pork and were slightly carmelized (heaven) and of course the pork was perfectly cooked (I have daydreams about that dinner). She always cooks us all of our personal favorites at Thanksgiving. My husband is personally inspired by her, learned from her, and because of her is becoming an amazing cook as well! Her grandchildren adore her!!

Kathy November 10, 2011 at 5:32 pm

I forgot about those lima beans. They were perfect. She did a lobster pasta dish once that had about six reductions that still makes me salivate. And I don’t even know what a reduction is.

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