My Mother, My Chef

Home-baked memories: A young Tom Sietsema taking a swipe at one of his mother's masterpieces.
Home-baked memories: A young Tom Sietsema taking a swipe at one of his mother's masterpieces. (Elwin Sietsema)
By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, May 14, 2006

Dorothy Sietsema still can't make fudge, but she can make almost everything else. And she taught her son, a future restaurant critic, to appreciate memorable cooking

If you cut a hot dog into really thin slices, you can pass it off as pepperoni. Just ask my mom. She used to make pizza for my sister, brother and me, and while she took the trouble to mix her own dough for the crust, she somehow never shopped that aisle in the grocery store where pepperoni might live. So she improvised. And, for years, I thought I didn't like pepperoni.

Minnesota blizzards brought out her resourcefulness, too. Growing up on one of those 10,000 lakes you might have heard about, I remember that it sometimes snowed before Halloween and after May Day. The white stuff came down with such regularity and force in my home town that the schools routinely budgeted two full weeks of snow days into their calendar. This was a blast (no classes!) until you wanted a bowl of cereal to accompany "Captain Kangaroo" and you remembered that the last of the milk was drunk at dinner. So why was the container in the refrigerator full? One sip would explain. When no one was looking, my mom had added powdered milk to tap water and poured the brew into the skim milk carton. My siblings and I were never fooled by that trick.

Other couples argue over money; my parents argued over fudge. My mother never quite mastered the technique for making it. "I didn't have the patience for it," she told me recently (and a little defensively from 1,214 miles away). "All that beating!" The result was either fudge that was hard as a rock or so soft it ended up being swirled, hot, over ice cream. More than once, she burst into tears when my dad saw her making fudge and asked whether the confection would require a "spoon or hammer?" to eat.

Other than that, Dorothy Sietsema was, and is, a fabulous home cook. She grew up poor, but she was surrounded by good things to eat: apples and plums from the trees, tomatoes from a big garden, and chickens that her father butchered himself. Her early exposure to things that were fresh and prime was passed on to her brood. Hamburger Helper had no home in her '70s-era pantry. She made her own version of beef-and-noodle casserole -- or "hot dish" in Minnesota-ese -- from scratch, as she did most things the family ate: pudding, doughnuts, bread, once even her own pastry for strudel (the thin dough stretched out to cover the dining room table like linen).

The remarkable thing is, she also held a full-time job. For as long as I can remember, she worked from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. as a county public health nurse; our dinners were frequently interrupted by someone calling about chest pains or stiff joints. Multitasking is part of her DNA. She whipped up dinner every day during the 30 minutes she had for a lunch break. Mom managed to squeeze in all the shopping, chopping, mixing and baking for her home-cooked menus in between singing in a choir, serving on an arts center board, volunteering at the historical society and even teaching a sex-ed class at church (for which I'm eternally grateful I was too young to attend at the time). Even when she wasn't around, she left behind foil-covered "TV dinners" she assembled from roast turkey, mashed potatoes and whatever vegetable was our current favorite.

Her technique was simple. Like a good chef, she always had ingredients front and center and ready to be cooked (mis en place, the French call it). "I was organized," Mom says. "I planned ahead." Her rationale was basic: "If you do something well, you get satisfaction from it."

I didn't grow up in a restaurant, but as a kid it often felt that way. On Saturday mornings, Mom would deliver a big tray of breakfast -- fresh-cut fruit, yeasty cinnamon rolls, bowls of cereal, scrambled eggs -- to my brother and me and whoever happened to spend the night and was parked in the den with us watching cartoons. Better still was an invitation to one of my birthday parties. These events weren't so much about me, but about the meals Mom made. She threw a dinner party with multiple courses -- for 10-year-olds! -- the finale of which was almost always her fanciful "World's Fair Cake." Rising half a foot from the plate, multiple layers of homemade chocolate cake were sandwiched with four colors of freshly whipped cream: pink (made with crushed peppermint); yellow (flavored with almond); mocha (sweetened with cocoa); and green (crushed pistachios). The dessert got better, and smaller, each day it sat in the refrigerator.

Considering the narrow range of ingredients a Midwestern home cook had at her disposal 30 years ago, Mom transformed a lot of beige staples into Technicolor meals. One of the gems in her collection of dishes for company was marinated, baked chicken breasts, or "Breasts of Chicken Grand Slam," as the recipe card trumpeted. The entree was a bit messy to make but easy to like, moistened with sour cream, crunchy from its coat of crumbs and zippy with hot sauce and paprika. Leave it to two mischievous brothers to give the entree their own spin, and rename it. We'd summon people to the dining room table by announcing "Breasts for Guests" whenever the dish was served.

Of course, we laughed. Of course, Mom shook her head. And, of course, we retained our membership in the Clean Plate Club.


Serves 4

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