'Fend for Yourself' Was My Mom's Best Cooking Trick
Southern Living food editor Lisa Cericola shares her mom's recipe for weeknight dinner sanity.
"So you're a food editor? I bet your mom is a great cook."
I get this a lot. When people find out that I'm the food editor at Southern Living, they assume that I grew up baking biscuits at my mother's elbow. While there wasn't much biscuit making going on when I was a kid growing up in Florida, Mom was, and still is, a very good cook.
Not that she would describe herself that way. She is way too modest. But in my book, any working mother who gets a homemade dinner on the table most nights of the week is an excellent cook. There should be a James Beard Award category for that.
My mom, like a lot of moms, specialized in what I call "utility cooking." Pork chops. Ground beef tacos. Meatloaf with a sticky ketchup glaze. Aside from some odorous boiled Brussels sprouts, I ate everything happily, completely unaware of the time and energy she put into planning, shopping, cooking, and cleaning up these everyday meals. If it was 5:30, dinner materialized somehow, thanks to Mom. We ate it, we cleared the table, we went on about our business. And then it all happened again the next day.
Now, as a mother to a two-and-a-half-year old, I deeply appreciate utility cooking. I do it five nights a week myself. It's not dinner party cooking to impress, or holiday cooking to honor family traditions, or even the kind of leisurely cooking when you're the only one in the house to feed. Utility cooking is homely, unpretentious, you-need-to-get-fed cooking. Sometimes it is the very last thing in the world you feel like doing. In fact, you actually dread it. But there is beauty in it, because you are meeting one of your family's most basic, important needs. Mom always made sure we were fed.
Unless it was Fend For Yourself night. After awhile, the most dedicated weeknight cook needs a break. And some nights, even ordering a pizza is too much to ask of that person. So my father and I were told to FFYS. My main memory of cooking for myself at this time was an assembly of Ritz cracker sandwiches: peanut butter and cheese, cream cheese and grape jelly, little scraps of cold cuts. There were definitely bowls of cold cereal. Sometimes there was a grilled cheese sandwich involving toothpicks, hot dogs, and the oven. I do not remember where Mom was during these meals.
While my cooking skills have advanced from random assortments of cobbled together snacks, FFYS night made a big impression on me as a kid. I was six years old and I could open the kitchen cabinets and scrounge around and make anything I wanted. I could cook! Whatever weird thing I made wouldn't need to please anyone but me. And while I experimented, Mom would get the gift of walking away from the kitchen, no questions asked. It's a doubly brilliant move, better than any cook's signature dish.