Just right for one cook

Mom ran her kitchen with an efficiency that the military would envy.

John Kehe

Whenever I made the 11-hour drive from Indiana to upstate New York, I knew to expect a tasty hot meal upon arrival at my mom’s. Even when well into her 90s she was still cooking in more ways than one, drawing on a pantry and refrigerator organized in a style the military could emulate and scale up to save millions on provisioning well-nourished troops. 

Nothing was wasted, and replenishment was instant. Any leftovers went into neatly stacked containers for the next day’s lunch and snacks. The refrigerator’s egg compartment held eggs; the meat and cheese drawers, meat and cheese. The freezer was lightly stocked, mainly with ice cream and bagels, both family favorites. Hers was a calm and rational system, though it was not geared to exotic fare. As children, we were well fed, but we had no clue about food that could not be presented in a casserole or on a meat-and-potato platter with a side of greens. Nor did we care.

In later years I usually arrived for family get-togethers a day or two ahead of my brother, a retired and well-traveled Marine colonel and gourmand, who drove to upstate New York all the way from North Carolina. Within minutes of his customary late-night appearance at our old childhood home he would devour Mom’s reheated meal, then begin hefting in the boxes and bags of groceries he’d packed from home or stopped to pick up along the way – his favorite Southern boiled peanuts, hot peppers, spicy sauces, condiments for Thai stir-fries, specialty pastas, sushi samplers, and the ingredients for at least one international feast for a dozen or more family members who live in the area. 

Mom would resign herself to a refrigerator chaotic with abundant unknowns while trying to preserve her small personal trove of trustworthy culinary fortifications. She’d let him rip. 

I would chop, prep, haul big old cooking pots from their basement storage, and eat most of what his table groaned under. Generally, after such meals, my sister and I would clean up ... and up and up, as Dave recuperated splayed out before the TV on the family room floor by Mom in her easy chair. 

When it was time for him to start his long journey home, my brother often left several large containers of leftovers. If I wasn’t going to be around for a day or two longer, the kitchen garbage disposal had a field day. Mom reluctantly, but determinedly, dropped her instinctual repugnance for waste of any kind and would clear the shelves of suspect content. The little machine would grind valiantly, flushing it away. 

But if I stayed longer than Dave, I’d greedily preserve certain favorites for myself and the nieces and nephews who would continue to visit.

“Can I get rid of this, whatever it is?” Mom would sometimes ask, a container in her hands poised above the stalwart rubber-shielded blades in the bottom of the rinsing sink.

“Noooo, I love that! I’ll finish it, I promise,” I’d plead, my mouth watering for those hot, spicy noodles. Or: “I’ll bet Meg or Mark will polish that off. Just let it sit in the cheese drawer until tomorrow.”

And so the fridge gradually emptied. Truth to tell even I would dispose of some remnants that were hard to pin a name or recent memory to. 

When I drove off, I’d imagine the rattle of the disposal revving up to its full, glorious volume before I got one block distant, and Mom enjoying a quiet, early dinner of scrambled eggs and maybe a side of baked potato (sometimes with sour cream!), and perhaps a bowl of ice cream as a finishing flourish. 

I knew she’d miss us, but I have little doubt that getting her kitchen and shelf space back took the sharp edge of longing right off.

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