I’m standing in my kitchen wiping down button mushrooms. In my head, I wonder how I can make them last longer. The news of food shortages here in America, the land of plenty, is why I’m now thinking of ways to make fresh vegetables and fruit last longer and to stretch meals. Meat packing plants are closing; farmers dump milk or plow vegetables back in the earth because Covid-19 has caused a labor shortage –all reasons for my recent caution. I go to the table, pick up my phone and search, “Can you freeze mushrooms?” One source tells me that they are best kept in the fridge for up to 7 days; I can freeze them but it may affect their taste and quality.
I return to the counter and Mom pops in my head.
It’s been a very long time since food insecurity played a role in my life.
Mom, born in Germany between the two world wars, reached early adulthood by the time WWII ended in May 1945. She was the eldest of twelve children. Her mother was a housewife. Her father drove a horse and cart delivering bottles of beer, that is, until WWII began and he became a soldier. The family was poor. Mom learned early on the value of food, how to stretch it, how to be resourceful. WWII with its attendant destruction of Germany and much of Europe further honed her skills as a survivor.
By the time I was born more than a decade had passed since the war ended. As a child I was unaware of the past. My village, close to Nuernberg, one of Germany’s most bombed cities, held no noticeable traces of the war; what’s more, no one talked of those years. In this place, surrounded by forests and farms, my mother, sister and I were fortunate despite being considered poor for some years.
One of my earliest memories as a child is me sitting on the front steps of the house where I was born, waiting for Mom to come home from the village hotel. She was a Putzfrau (Maid) and worked long hours cleaning. After parties she alone swept and mopped the floor of a large hall. Another scene comes to mind –Mom and our neighbor, Frau (Mrs.) Braun, raking leaves while sending us children into the nearby farmer’s field to dig up potatoes, skewer them on twigs and roast them in a burning pile of leaves. When I was nine, ten, eleven, Mom nurtured strawberries and vegetables in her small allotment of a garden. This was followed by hours in the kitchen, cleaning, sorting, cooking and canning to store jars in the cellar to carry us through the winter.
And then there were times when Mom and I went into the woods; days spent gathering after walking miles to reach the nearby forest. We picked wild blueberries in season. Other days meant hours of stooping and picking dried pine cones and twigs for firewood. We stuffed all into burlap sacks, loaded them onto our single bicycle and pushed back home. In autumn, Mom ended the day by foraging for wild mushrooms, the delicacy that brought the past to my mind.
Once home, Mom washed, sliced and fried the assorted mushrooms in a skillet. An earthy, mouthwatering aroma filled our little kitchen. I’ve forgotten the exact taste of the simple, yet complex in flavors, dish. But the memory remains — it was one of the best meals of my life.
Knowing which mushrooms were edible –Steinpilz (Porcini), pfifferlinge (chanterelle) –which poisonous –was handed down to her from my grandmother; in times of scarcity this skill provided us with moments of plenty.
Since then the years have been kind. Like many, I’ve taken for granted the convenience of going out to eat or picking up a snack. Not fond of cooking, I’m learning that to stretch a meal is an exercise in creativity. Can I leave it out? What can I substitute goes through my head as I find that the ingredient I need to make a dish or oft-used cookie recipe simply is not there. I’d also given little thought to how much food I wasted. These days, confined to home, I’m becoming reacquainted with childhood lessons: eat what’s in front of you; finish leftovers; be grateful.
As for now, I melt a pat of butter in the pan; add a few chopped onions then the sliced mushrooms. They brown. I sprinkle salt, pepper and dried parsley into the mix. An earthy aroma fills my kitchen. I toss a slice of bread in the toaster. When all is done, I slide half the mix on my plate. I’ll save the rest for tomorrow, I think. I sit down to savor the morsels, alone, but with Mom by my side.
In memory of Mutti
What I Learned From My Mother
BY JULIA KASDORF
I learned from my mother how to love
the living, to have plenty of vases on hand
in case you have to rush to the hospital
with peonies cut from the lawn, black ants
still stuck to the buds. I learned to save jars
large enough to hold fruit salad for a whole
grieving household, to cube home-canned pears
and peaches, to slice through maroon grape skins
and flick out the sexual seeds with a knife point.
I learned to attend viewings even if I didn’t know
the deceased, to press the moist hands
of the living, to look in their eyes and offer
sympathy, as though I understood loss even then.
I learned that whatever we say means nothing,
what anyone will remember is that we came.
I learned to believe I had the power to ease
awful pains materially like an angel.
Like a doctor, I learned to create
from another’s suffering my own usefulness, and once
you know how to do this, you can never refuse.
To every house you enter, you must offer
healing: a chocolate cake you baked yourself,
the blessing of your voice, your chaste touch.
(Recipe courtesy of UK friends Matt and Vivian. Matt altered the recipe to top with sliced vs. mashed potatoes)
Tips for the Lentil casserole:
• If you have them, you can also add sliced mushrooms to the vegetables
• I’ve substituted chicken broth (I try to use lower sodium) or used a combination of chicken and vegetable broth
• If you don’t have enough to make mashed potatoes, top with thinly sliced potatoes, interlaced with tomato (experiment with different types such as halved grape or cherry tomato)
o Sprinkle with salt and pepper; I also added a few more sprinkles of dried thyme leaves
o Drizzle with olive oil
o Cover with foil and bake until potatoes are tender (At 350F in my oven, this varied between 25 to 35 minutes)
o Add shredded mature cheddar (try different types) and bake until melted
You can try broiling for a few minutes to brown the cheese